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Edited and with an Introduction 
by Linda ]. Nicholson 







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Thinking Gender 

Edited by Linda J. Nicholson 

Also published in the series 

Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity 
Judith Butler 




Edited and with an Introduction 
by Linda J. Nicholson 


ROUTLEDGE 
New York and London 



First published in 1990 by 

Routledge 
an imprint of 

Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc. 
29 West 35 Street 
New York, NY 10001 

Published in Great Britain by 

Routledge 
11 New Fetter Lane 
London EC4P 4EE 


©1990 by Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc. 

Printed in the United States of America 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or 
utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now 
known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in 
any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing 
from the publishers. 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 

Feminism/postmodemism / edited by Linda J. Nicholson, 
p. cm.—(Thinking gender) 

Includes bibliographical references and index. 

ISBN 0-415-90058-1; ISBN 0-415-90059-X 
1. Feminism—Philosophy. 2. Postmodernism. I. Nicholson, Linda 
J. II. Series 
HQ1206.F453 1989 

305.42'01—dc20 89-6432 

CIP 


British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data 

Feminism/postmodemism.—(Feminist theory series) 

I. Feminism related to postmodernism. 2. Culture 
postmodernism related to feminism. 

I. Nicholson, Linda, J. II. Series 305.4'2 

ISBN 0-415-90058-1 
ISBN 0-415-90059-x 



To Philip, Linda, Andrew, Jennifer, and Peter Nicholson 




Contents 


Acknowledgments ix 

Introduction 1 

Part I: Feminism As Against Epistemology? 

1. Social Criticism without Philosophy: An Encounter between 
Feminism and Postmodernism 

Nancy Fraser and Linda J. Nicholson 19 

2. Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory 

Jane Flax 39 

3. Dilemmas of Difference: Feminism, Modernity, and Postmodernism 

Christine Di Stefano 63 

4. Feminism, Science, and the Anti-Enlightenment Critiques 

Sandra Harding 83 

5. Epistemologies of Postmodernism: A Rejoinder to 
Jean-Franqois Lyotard 

Seyla Benhabib 107 

Part II: The Politics of Location 

6. Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism 

Susan Bordo 133 

7. Foucault on Power: A Theory for Women? 

Nancy Hartsock 


vii 


157 



viii / Contents 


8. Travels in the Postmodern: Making Sense of the Local 

Elspelh Probyn 176 

9. A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist 
Feminism in the 1980s 

Donna Haraway 190 

10. Mapping the Postmodern 

Andreas Huyssen 234 

Part Ill: Identity and Differentiation 

11. A Feminist Theory of Social Differentiation 

Anna Yeatman 281 

12. The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference 

Iris Marion Young 300 

13. Gender Trouble, Feminist Theory, and Psychoanalytic Discourse 

Judith Butler 324 

Index 341 

Contributors 346 



Acknowledgments 


I would like to thank Nancy Fraser, Steve Seidman, Marion Smiley, 
and Bemie Yack for their help with the introduction and with the organiza¬ 
tion of the book as a whole. 

It is delightful when an editor also becomes a friend. Without the 
support of Maureen MacGrogan at Routledge, this book would not have 
been possible. 

I would like to express appreciation for being able to reprint the fol¬ 
lowing: 

Jane Flax, “Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory,” 
Signs, Vol. 12, No. 4. pp. 621-643. 

Christine Di Stefano, “Dilemmas of Difference: Feminism, Modernity, 
and Postmodernism,” Women and Politics, Vol. 8, No. 3/4, 1988, pp. 1 - 
24. 

Seyla Benhabib, “Epistemologies of Postmodernism: A Rejoinder to 
Jean-Fran^ois Lyotard,” New German Critique, No. 33, 1984, pp. 103— 
126. 

Nancy Hartsock, “Foucault on Power: A Theory for Women?” The 
Gender of Power: A Symposium, ed. Monique Leijenaar (Leiden: Vak- 
groep Vrouwenstudies/Vena, 1987). 

Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and 
Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” Socialist Review, Vol. 15, No. 80, 
1985, pp. 65-107. 

Andreas Huyssen, “Mapping the Postmodern,” New German Critique, 
No. 33, 1984, pp. 5-52. 

Iris Young, “The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference,” 
Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring 1986, pp. 1-26. 


IX 






Introduction 


From the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, feminist theory exhibited a 
recurrent pattern: Its analyses tended to reflect the viewpoints of white, 
middle-class women of North America and Western Europe. The irony 
was that one of the powerful arguments feminist scholars were making 
was the limitation of scholarship which falsely universalized on the 
basis of limited perspectives. Moreover, feminists were becoming 
increasingly aware that a problem with existing scholarship was not 
only that it left out women’s voices; rather, the voices of many social 
groups had been silenced. Yet, even in the context of this growing 
awareness of the oppressive politics of traditional scholarship and a 
sincere commitment to ensure wide-ranging inclusiveness in their own 
work, the tendency persisted. 

In large part the problem was a consequence of the methodological 
legacies which feminist scholars inadvertently took over from their teach¬ 
ers. As Nancy Fraser and I note in “Social Criticism without Philosophy,” 
not only did feminist scholars replicate the problematic universalizing 
tendencies of academic scholarship in general but, even more strikingly, 
they tended to repeat the specific types of questionable universalizing 
moves found in the particular schools of thought to which their work was 
most closely allied. Thus, Marxist-feminist scholarship suffered from 
the same kinds of faulty universalizations found in nonfeminist-Marxist 
scholarship, while feminist developmental psychologists replicated the 
specific types of universalizing mistakes present in developmental psy¬ 
chology. 

But, while the specific manifestations of such universalizing tendencies 
in feminist theory might have been diverse, the underlying problem was 
the same. It was the failure, common to many forms of academic scholar¬ 
ship, to recognize the embeddedness of its own assumptions within a 


1 



2 / Introduction 


specific historical context. Like many other modem Western scholars, 
feminists were not used to acknowledging that the premises from which 
they were working possessed a specific location. 

To adequately diagnose this problem, both within feminist scholarship 
and within contemporary academic scholarship more generally, requires 
that we look back to trends which have dominated modem scholarship, 
trends which date back to the Enlightenment. The scholarship of modem 
Western culture has been marked by the attempt to reveal general, all- 
encompassing principles which can lay bare the basic features of natural 
and social reality. This attempt can be related to an earlier, more 
religiously based belief that the purpose of scholarship was to make 
evident the word of God as revealed in his creations. While the relation 
of God to the basic ordering principles of the universe grew increasingly 
distant, Western scholarship remained committed to the discovery of 
such principles. 

One crucial consequence of this legacy was a vision of true scholarship 
as that which replicated “a God’s eye view” as opposed to that which 
expressed the perspectives of particular persons or groups. To be sure, 
other ideals of scholarship have also surfaced within the modem West, 
such as those found in the traditions of romanticism, historicism, and 
hermeneutics. Nevertheless, an ideal of scholarship as transcending the 
perspective of any one human being or group has persisted as at least one 
highly powerful ideal. 

A scholarly domain where this ideal has been pronounced is the disci¬ 
pline of philosophy, the most ancestral of contemporary disciplines. More¬ 
over, modem philosophy has been marked not only by its universalizing 
mode but also by its strong belief in the independence of the adequacy of 
its pronouncements from the historical context of their genesis. Philosophy 
has undergone some important transformations over the past several centu¬ 
ries. With the emergence of the natural sciences, it lost its position as 
elaborator of the basic principles of nature. With the emergence of the 
social sciences in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it also lost 
its position as elaborator of the basic principles of human nature and 
social reality. It retained, however, a position as elaborator of those basic 
principles by which all claims to knowledge were to be judged, and 
governance over those domains, such as ethics and aesthetics, which 
resisted description as “science.” In short, it became the elaborator of 
standards governing the “true,” the “good,” and the “beautiful.” 

While the contemporary discipline of philosophy very clearly reflects 
this scholarly ideal of a “transcendent reason,” other disciplines, such 
as those in the natural and social sciences, also contain important 
elements of this ideal. To be sure, the modem natural and social 
sciences have been marked more by the quest for a multitude of 



Introduction / 3 


principles and laws than by a search for a basic few. Nevertheless, 
they have retained aspects of such an ideal in their allegiance to the 
norm of objectivity. While the meaning of this norm varies within the 
academy, one popular interpretation is that of inquiry immune to the 
nonacademic influences of politics or values. 

Feminist scholarship emerged within an academic environment strongly 
governed by this norm. To gain legitimacy, feminists had to counter it, 
since many academics used the norm of objectivity to denounce the very 
idea of feminist scholarship. Feminist scholars responded by challenging 
the notion itself, arguing that what had most frequently been presented as 
objective because supposedly devoid of the influence of values, such as 
those related to gender, actually had reflected such values. Moreover, they 
claimed that such biases were inevitable; all scholarship reflected the 
perspectives and ideals of its creators. Avoiding narrowness in the acad¬ 
emy could only be possible through ensuring the inclusion of a multitude 
of points of view. 

Feminist scholars have not been alone in launching a criticism of the 
alleged neutrality of the academy. Scholars involved in other political 
movements, such as Marxism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries 
and the movements of black and gay liberation in the twentieth century, 
have also questioned the supposed “God’s eye view” of the academy. 
Such politically oriented criticisms of “objective scholarship” have been 
aided by more academically oriented discussions within philosophy of 
science about the “value-laden” aspect of theoretical inquiry. 

Within the last decade, there have emerged even more radical 
arguments against claims of objectivity in the academy which have 
been tied to broad analyses of the limitations of modern Western 
scholarship. The proponents of such analyses, linked under the label 
of “postmodernists,” have argued that the academy’s ideal of “a God’s 
eye view” must be situated within the context of modernity, a period 
whose organizing principles they claim are on the decline. The postmod¬ 
ernist critique of modernity is wideranging; it focuses on such diverse 
elements as the modem sense of the self and subjectivity, the idea of 
history as linear and evolutionary, and the modernist separation of art 
and mass culture. I will focus, for the moment, on the postmodernist 
critique of the idea of a transcendent reason. 

Postmodernists have gone beyond earlier historicist claims about the 
inevitable “situatedness” of human thought within culture to focus on the 
very criteria by which claims to knowledge are legitimized. The traditional 
historicist claim that all inquiry is inevitably influenced by the values of 
the inquirer provides a very weak counter to the norm of objectivity. The 
response can be made that while values and culture might affect the choice 
of questions the scholar brings to her or his inquiry, they cannot affect the 



4 / Introduction 


truth of falsity of the answers the scholar gives to such questions. This is 
because the criteria which determine the truth or falsity of such answers 
are themselves independent of the specific perspective of the inquirer. But 
the more radical move in the postmodern tum was to claim that the 
very criteria demarcating the true and the false, as well as such related 
distinctions as science and myth or fact and superstition, were internal to 
the traditions of modernity and could not be legitimized outside of those 
traditions. Moreover, it was argued that the very development and use of 
such criteria, as well as their extension to ever wider domains, had to be 
described as representing the growth and development of specific “regimes 
of power.” 

Postmodernists have focused on the growth of science and its widening 
influence over many spheres of life throughout modernity. They have 
claimed that in the name of “science,” authority has become exercised in 
a variety of ways: in the disciplines, the media, popular advice manuals, 
and so on. By pointing to the element of power in such modem practices, 
postmodernists have extended the field where power has traditionally been 
viewed as operating, for example, from the state and the economy to such 
domains as sexuality and mental health. 

Behind such practices, the postmodern argument continues, is the back¬ 
drop of science and those criteria separating science from superstition and 
myth. Such criteria, while often little thought about by practicing natural 
and social scientists or by those who view their work as inspired by 
science, serve as the “taken-for-granted” support of all such activity. It is 
mostly modem philosophers who have attempted to give meaning to such 
distinctions, to articulate general principles of knowledge, that is, an 
epistemology. This attempted construction of theories of knowledge 
within modem philosophy has paralleled the attempted construction of 
well-established theories of other important modem ideals, such as justice 
and beauty. 

Therefore, the postmodern critique has come to focus on philosophy 
and the very idea of a possible theory of knowledge, justice, or beauty. 
The claim is that the pursuit itself of such theories rests upon the modernist 
conception of a transcendent reason, a reason able to separate itself from 
the body and from historical time and place. Postmodernists describe 
modem ideals of science, justice, and art, as merely modem ideals carry¬ 
ing with them specific political agendas and ultimately unable to legitimize 
themselves as universals. Thus, postmodernists urge us to recognize the 
highest ideals of modernity in the West as immanent to a specific historical 
time and geographical region and also associated with certain political 
baggage. Such baggage includes notions of the supremacy of the West, 
of the legitimacy of science to tell us how to use and view our bodies, and 
of the distinction between art and mass culture. 



Introduction / 5 


Feminism as Against Epistemology? 

The above discussion represents a simplified summary of a range of 
positions which are more wide ranging, diverse, and less consistent than 
this brief overview might suggest. However, from this summary we can 
begin to see why “the postmodern turn” has become a pressing issue for 
feminist scholars. On the one hand, there are many points of overlap 
between a postmodern stance and positions long held by feminists. Femi¬ 
nists, too, have uncovered the political power of the academy and of 
knowledge claims. In general, they have argued against the supposed 
neutrality and objectivity of the academy, asserting that claims put forth 
as universally applicable have invariably been valid only for men of a 
particular culture, class, and race. They have further alleged that even the 
ideals which have given backing to these claims, such as “objectivity” 
and “reason,” have reflected the values of masculinity at a particular point 
in history. Feminists have criticized other Enlightenment ideals, such as 
the autonomous and self-legislating self, as reflective of masculinity in 
the modern West. On such grounds, postmodernism would appear to be 
a natural ally of feminism. 

Moreover, for some feminists, postmodernism is not only a natural ally 
but also provides a basis for avoiding the tendency to construct theory that 
generalizes from the experiences of Western, white, middle-class women. 
This position, qualified, is taken by Nancy Fraser and myself. As we note 
in “Social Criticism without Philosophy,” postmodernism offers feminism 
some useful ideas about method, particularly a wariness toward generaliza¬ 
tions which transcend the boundaries of culture and region. To be sure, 
transcendent generalizations within feminist theory have not been the same 
as those usually discussed by postmodernists. Feminist theorists have not 
attempted, by and large, the construction of cross-cultural theories of the 
true, the just, or the beautiful. On the contrary, feminist theorists have most 
frequently claimed to base their theories in observation and to acknowledge 
their construction as rooted in the concerns of the present. 

Nevertheless, as we argue, because feminist theorists have frequently 
exhibited a too casual concern toward history and have used categories 
which have inclined the theories toward essentialism, many feminist theo¬ 
ries of the late 1960s to the mid-1980s have been susceptible to the same 
kinds of criticisms as postmodernists make against philosophy. This point 
is evident in the attempts by many feminist theorists to locate “the cause” 
of women’s oppression. Such attempts have ranged from Shulamith Fire¬ 
stone’s very early appeal to biological differences between women and 
men, to the postulation by many influential feminist anthropologists in the 
1970s of a cross-cultural domestic/public separation, to later appeals in 
the late 1970s and early 1980s to women’s labor, to women’s sexuality, 



6 / Introduction 


and to women’s primary responsibility for child bearing. In all of these 
cases, aspects of modem Western culture were postulated as present in all 
or most of human history. Such cultural projection can be found even in 
many instances of feminist theory which did not seek the ultimate cause 
of women’s oppression, but which attempted to describe “a woman’s 
distinctive perspective.” 

In “Postmodernism and Gender: Relations in Feminist Theory,” Jane 
Flax argues a similar position. Flax does point to a lingering attraction 
among many feminists for an Enlightenment world view. As she notes, 
it is tempting for those who have been treated as incapable of autonomy 
and rationality to insist on the extension of these powers to themselves 
and to believe in reason as their ally in the struggle. Nevertheless, Flax 
argues that feminist theory more appropriately belongs in the terrain of 
postmodern philosophy. For one, feminist notions of the self, knowledge, 
and truth are too much at odds with those of the Enlightenment to fit 
comfortably within its boundaries. Moreover, she also points to the prob¬ 
lems of feminist theory which does not adequately take to heart postmodern 
strictures against the search for ultimate causes or first principles. As she 
claims, underlying many feminist attempts to identify one aspect of human 
experience, such as production, sexuality, child rearing, or language, as 
the ultimate factor in women’s oppression, is the hope of speaking from 
some Archimedean point. But such a hope places feminist theory at odds 
with its political ideals of inclusiveness. To try to identify unitary themes 
in the experiences or perspectives of women may require the suppression 
of voices different from our own. Flax claims that the assumption of such 
a standpoint may in part be a reflection of a way of thinking grounded in 
social domination. “Perhaps reality can have ‘a’ structure only from the 
falsely universalizing perspective of the dominant group. That is, only to 
the extent that one person or group can dominate the whole, will reality 
appear to be governed by one set of rules or be constituted by one 
privileged set of social relations.” 

Other feminist scholars are much more skeptical about the value of the 
postmodern turn for feminism. Christine Di Stefano’s article is exemplary 
of this stance. One important set of concerns she raises can be grouped 
around the question: Is postmodernism a theory whose time has come for 
men but not women? Di Stefano raises the possibility that since men have 
had their Enlightenment, they can afford a sense of a decentered self and 
a humbleness regarding the coherence and truth of their claims. On the 
other hand, for women to take on such a position is to weaken what is not 
yet strong. One important arena which would suffer would be feminist 
politics. She raises the questions: Would not a politics of alliances, such 
as is suggested by postmodernism, be necessarily unreliable? Would 
it not be necessarily reactive rather than constructive and incapable of 



Introduction / 7 


sustaining itself through time? Most fundamentally, does not the adoption 
of postmodernism really entail the destruction of feminism, since does not 
feminism itself depend on a relatively unified notion of the social subject 
“woman,” a notion postmodernism would attack? 

Sandra Harding also raises concerns about the critique of epistemology 
made by postmodernism. To this critique she counterposes two alternative 
feminist theories of scientific knowledge: feminist empiricism, the applica¬ 
tion of a traditional empiricist method to feminist concerns, and feminist 
standpoint theory, which views a feminist vantage point as more illuminat¬ 
ing than any existing vantage point by cross-cultural standards. She points 
to some strong advantages each possesses, advantages which are lost by 
a postmodernist abandonment of epistemology. Briefly, she argues that 
feminism needs epistemology as a defense against both “objectivism” and 
“interpretivism.” Feminism needs decision-making procedures which both 
valorize the importance of the social context of inquiry and yet also 
avoid relativism. An advantage of both feminist empiricism and feminist 
standpoint theory is that both leave intact traditional understandings of the 
cumulative nature of scientific research and thus the idea of some types 
of research as less false than others. 

She also notes the many problems which both feminist empiricism and 
feminist standpoint theory possess. One is that feminist empiricism must 
remain inconsistent on the relation of politics to inquiry, as traditional 
empiricism has supported the norm of “value-free” research. Feminist 
standpoint theory has difficulties in elaborating linkages with the stand¬ 
points of oppressed groups other than women. Indeed, she claims that 
both theories have incorporated postmodernist elements to deal with such 
problems. 

The view that postmodernism leads to relativism is also evident in the 
essay by Seyla Benhabib. Benhabib locates postmodernism as emerging 
out of a set of reactions to modem epistemology going back to the 
nineteenth century. She describes modem epistemology as operating with 
a threefold distinction: “the order of representations in our consciousness 
(ideas or sensations); the signs through which these ‘private’ orders were 
made public, namely, words, and that of which our representations were 
representations and to which they referred.” The reactions against modern 
epistemology can therefore be identified as involving critiques of the 
modem subject, the modem object, and the modem concept of the sign. 
Conjointly these critiques have entailed a shift so “that the focus is no 
longer on the epistemic subject and the private contents of its conscious¬ 
ness but on the public signifying activities of a collection of subjects.” 

With such a shift, Benhabib has no objection. Her quarrel is with its 
elaboration in the writings of at least one prominent postmodernist, Jean- 
Francois Lyotard. Lyotard, according to Benhabib, identifies this rejection 



8 / Introduction 


of modem epistemology, the epistemology of representation, with asser¬ 
tions about the incommensurability of language claims and the necessary 
locality and context-dependent nature of criteria of validity. For Benhabib, 
such an identification “either leads to a ‘polytheism of values,’ from which 
standpoint the principle of performativity or of emancipation cannot be 
criticized, or this philosophy does not remain wholly polytheistic but 
privileges one domain of discourse and knowledge over others as a hidden 
criterion.” In short, for Benhabib, the kind of postmodernism found within 
the writings of Lyotard is either relativist or inconsistent. 

The Politics of Location 

While theorists such as Sandra Harding and Seyla Benhabib worry 
about postmodernism leading us down a relativist path, other feminists 
raise different kinds of concerns. Particularly disturbing to some is whether 
the category of gender can survive the postmodern critique. If postmodern¬ 
ism entails abandoning the use of cross-cultural categories, what then 
happens to the category of gender? Would any determinate generalizations 
be permitted in postmodern times? But if postmodernism entails the aban¬ 
donment of all generalizations, would not the end result be a nominalist 
ontology and an individualist politics? 

These kinds of questions appear in the essays by Nancy Hartsock and 
Susan Bordo. Both argue that theorizing needs some stopping points and 
that for feminists an important theoretical stopping point is gender. To 
invoke the ideal of endless difference is for feminism either to self-destruct 
or to finally accept an ontology of abstract individualism. 

Susan Bordo also claims that postmodernism may effect the same kind 
of erasure of the body, and thus erasure of any positioning within space 
and time that was present in modernism. As she notes, in the Cartesian 
world view there is no room for the body, since the body, by situating any 
perspective, prevents the possibility of an all-encompassing perspective. 
However, she warns of the same endpoint resulting from a seemingly 
opposite stance. She points to the metaphors of continuous movement and 
dance present in postmodern writers and their description of the body as 
fragmented, changing and inviting a “confusion of boundaries.” But since 
we real human beings possess bodies of limited mobility and flexibility, 
to portray them as otherwise is ultimately to negate them: 

What sort of body is it that is free to change its shape and location at 
will, that can become anyone and travel everywhere? If the body is a 
metaphor for our locatedness in space and time and thus for the finitude 
of human perception and knowledge, then the postmodern body is no 
body at all. 



Introduction / 9 


The deconstructionist erasure of the body is not effected, as in the 
Cartesian version, through a trip to “nowhere,” but in a resistance to 
the recognition that one is always somewhere, and limited. 


The body can serve also as a metaphor for theory, since the location 
which bodies possess replicates the kind of cognitive location which 
theories provide. But as human bodies cannot be understood as endlessly 
mobile and flexible, so human understanding also possesses necessary 
boundaries and rigidities. As Bordo notes: “Reality itself may be relent¬ 
lessly plural and heterogeneous, but human understanding and interest 
cannot be.” Similarly, Nancy Hartsock also describes postmodernism as 
dangerously inviting the abandonment of theory: 


Somehow it seems highly suspicious that it is at the precise moment 
when so many groups have been engaged in “nationalisms” which 
involve redefinitions of the marginalized others that suspicions emerge 
about the nature of the ‘subject,’ about the possibilities for a general 
theory which can describe the work, about historical progress. 


Thus, the dangers of postmodernism as seen by some feminists are 
those of both relativism and the abandonment of theory. While many 
reject the modernist “view from nowhere,” they question whether post¬ 
modernism would not lead us to the equally problematic “view from 
everywhere.” Are coherent theory and politics possible within a postmod¬ 
ern position? 

The answer to this question might be positive if the kind of postmodern¬ 
ism feminists adopt is a carefully constructed one. As Nancy Fraser and 
I argue, postmodernism need not demand the elimination of all big theory, 
much less theory per se, to avoid totalization and essentialism. The key 
is to identify types of theorizing which are inimical to essentialism. 
Thus, theorizing which is explicitly historical, that is, which situates its 
categories within historical frameworks, less easily invites the dangers of 
false generalizations than does theorizing which does not. Thus, our 
criticisms of writers such as Chodorow are not based on the mere presence 
of generalizations within their theories as on the fact that the categories 
that they employ, such as mothering, are not situated within a specific 
cultural and historical context. Of course, the process of framing a phe¬ 
nomenon within a context is always one that can be further extended. 
Therefore, one could, theoretically, invoke this ideal to such an extent 
that all that is left viable are descriptions of particular events at particular 
points in time. However, that this ideal can be carried to such an extreme 
does not negate the wisdom of feminist scholars today moving in such a 



10 / Introduction 


direction given the very extreme avoidance of history by many of the 
disciplines of the contemporary academy. 

The conclusion, therefore, is that postmodernism must avoid any simple 
celebration of difference or of particularity for its own sake. This point 
also emerges in Elspeth Probyn’s discussion of “location.” By “location” 
Probyn refers to the process by which: 

knowledges are ordered into sequences which are congruent with pre¬ 
viously established categories of knowledge. Location then, delineates 
what we may hold as knowledge and, following, Foucault, renders 
certain experiences ‘true’ and ‘scientific’ while excluding others. 

Lest, however, we are led to adopt a view of meaning construction as that 
which results only from imposition, Probyn reminds us that any “locale” 
is both a product of imposition (location) and is also the site of our desires. 
Thus: 

This is also to remember that we negotiate our locales; that we are 
continuously working to make sense of and articulate both place and 
event. Moreover, as we approach others’ locales we must keep in mind 
that women are never simply fixed within locale. We may live within 
patriarchy but at different levels and in different ways the struggle to 
rearticulate locale continues. 

One conclusion Probyn draws from these remarks is a warning against 
any simple celebration of locality. Any “locale” is rarely unproblematic 
but represents a process of contestation and negotiation. But this means 
that the extent to which we insist on difference and how we describe the 
“differences that make a difference” is itself a political act. Thus, Bordo 
is correct in noting that the mere abstract invocation of difference could 
theoretically be used in the service of conservative ends. The clear danger 
here is in viewing postmodernism as merely an invocation of certain 
abstract ideals, such as “difference" rather than viewing the postmodern 
invocation of difference as following from and being limited to the de¬ 
mands of specific political contexts. 

But this demand that postmodernism situate its defense of specific 
values within an historical context obviously also follows from postmod¬ 
ernism’s own methodological claims. It would not be difficult for postmod¬ 
ernists to carry out such an injunction with regard to the category of 
“difference.” For example, the claim could be made that while the broad- 
category sweeps of modernity might have been liberatory at one point, by 
reacting against the particularistic way of thinking of earlier times, by the 
mid-part of the twentieth century such moves were also beginning to be 



Introduction / 11 


used to justify reactive positions. Thus, the universalizing strategies of 
Enlightenment humanism began to be used in the United States and 
Western Europe against attempts to use race and gender as criteria in 
educational or employment policies. Twentieth-century Marxism has used 
the generalizing categories of production and class to delegitimize de¬ 
mands of women, black people, gays, lesbians, and others whose oppres¬ 
sion cannot be reduced to economics. Thus, to raise questions now about 
the necessarily liberatory consequences of universalizing categories is to 
open spaces for movements otherwise shut out by them. 

What, though about the argument that postmodernism reduces all dis¬ 
course to rhetoric, that it allows no distinction between reason and power? 
Again, I believe that a carefully constructed postmodernism can deal with 
this problem. We can admit of the postmodern claim that conceptual 
distinctions, criteria of legitimation, cognitive procedural rules, and so 
forth are all political and therefore represent moves of power and also 
recognize that they represent a different type of power than is exhibited 
in, for example, physical violence or the threat of force. A postmodern 
feminism could thus both support certain procedural aspects of natural 
science or other reflexive criteria of validity claims, that is, “decision 
procedures to guide choices in theory, research, and politics,” while also 
acknowledging such support as political and grounded in a particular 
cultural context. 

The underlying thread of these remarks is that postmodernism must 
reject a description of itself as embodying a set of timeless ideals contrary 
to those of modernism; it must insist on being recognized as a set of 
viewpoints of a time, justifiable only within its own time. By doing so, 
of course, it opens itself up to objections by feminists and others of being 
potentially dangerous for our times. In short, as feminists, how do we 
assess the political implications of postmodernism? 

The essay by Donna Haraway is helpful here. Haraway very clearly 
presents postmodernism as a viewpoint of our times, but as one neither 
wholly attractive nor abhorrent in so far as the period is one of both 
possibilities and foreclosures. To illuminate the mixed values of the pres¬ 
ent, she uses the metaphor of a Cyborg. A Cyborg is a phenomenon 
which violates certain previously dominant distinctions, particularly those 
between humans and animals, humans and machines, minds and bodies, 
and materialism and idealism. It rejects prior hopes of unity and wholeness 
as expressed in such ideals as unalienated labor, pre-Oedipal symbiosis, 
community as family , and female as goddess. Rather, it reveals a height¬ 
ened consciousness of boundaries, whose dark side for her is an escalating 
individualism. 

For Haraway, the postmodern is a period not only of changed ideals, 
metaphors, and hopes. It is also a period of changed structures of family, 



12 / Introduction 


work relations, and class distinctions. Here, Haraway’s position is similar 
to that of some theorists, such as Baudrillard, who describe the postmodern 
period as “post” modernization, where modernization refers to the process 
of industrialization and the growth of the nation state. For Haraway, some 
significant markers of such social-structural changes are the growing 
dominance of women-headed households, the erosion of gender as an 
organizing principle of some aspects of work life, and the emergence of 
a two-class system constituted on its underside by masses of women and 
people of color. It is a time where prior means of control and repression 
have given way to new forms. “Our dominations don’t work by medicali- 
zation and normalization anymore; they work by networking, communica¬ 
tions redesign, stress management.” 

But lest we become too gloomy about such a diagnosis of the present, 
Haraway also points to the political possibilities which the postmodern 
present makes available. “With no available original dream of a common 
language or original symbiosis promising protection from hostile “mascu¬ 
line” separation, ... we are freed from the need to root politics in 
identification, vanguard parties, purity, or mothering.” She argues that 
what has now become possible is a politics which embraces a recognition 
of the multiple, pregnant, and contradictory aspects of both our individual 
and collective identities. Such a politics no longer requires essential criteria 
of identification; rather, she claims, we are beginning to see instead the 
formation of political groupings which rest on the conscious negation of 
such criteria. For example, she points to the identifying phrase “women 
of color” as an example of such a postmodern identity, that is, an identity 
constructed out of a recognition of otherness and difference. 

Andreas Huyssen, like Donna Haraway, describes the postmodern as a 
perspective within an historical condition. Like Haraway, he also sees 
certain critical and liberatory elements of postmodernism which are related 
to its rejection of that which had become oppressive in modernism. 

For Huyssen there is no question that modernism was liberatory in its 
manifestations both as capitalist modernization and communist vanguard- 
ism. But tied to its emancipatory aspects were also its forms of oppression. 
Such forms became manifest in its architecture after 1945: 

After 1945, modernist architecture was largely deprived of its social 
vision and became increasingly an architecture of power and representa¬ 
tion. Rather than standing as harbingers of promises of the new life, 
modernist housing projects became symbols of alienation and dehuman¬ 
ization, a fate they shared with the assembly line, that other agent of 
the new which had been greeted with exhuberant enthusiasm in the 
1920s by Leninists and Fordists alike. 

A most fundamental feature of modernist art has been its strong disdain 
of mass culture and its postulation of the aesthetic as a domain of life 



Introduction / 13 


separate from both the political and the ordinary. Using this element of 
modernism as definitive, Huyssen examines various trends of aesthetic 
and theoretical rebellion from the 1960s to the present. His argument is 
that which most significantly defines the critical element in postmodernism 
is its challenge to modernism’s hostility to mass culture. On such grounds, 
Huyssen distinguishes postmodernism from poststructuralism. Huyssen 
argues that the privileged position poststructuralist theorists give to aes¬ 
thetics and the separation they make of art from life, reality, and history 
replicates crucial oppressive features of modernity: 

The insight that the subject is constituted in language and the notion 
that there is nothing outside the text have led to the privileging of the 
aesthetic and the linguistic which aestheticism has always promoted to 
justify its imperial claims. The list of ‘no longer possibles’ (realism, 
representation, subjectivity, history, etc. etc.) is as long in poststructur¬ 
alism as it used to be in modernism, and it is very similar indeed. 

Following these claims, Huyssen makes a distinction between writers such 
as Derrida and the late Barthes who have received warm receptions in 
American literature departments and the more political, and thus on Huys- 
sen’s criteria, more truly postmodern, writings of such theorists as Fou¬ 
cault, the early Baudrillard, Kristeva, and Lyotard. 

Identity and Differentiation 

The depiction of postmodernism as a set of perspectives with its own 
possibilities and dangers has implications going beyond what has tradition¬ 
ally been understood as “political.” At stake also are issues of personal 
and social identity and how the “political” itself is to be defined. Anna 
Yeatman argues that such distinctions as between the “individual” and 
“society,” between the “private” and the “public,” between “emotion” and 
“reason,” and between the “personal” and the “political” are distinctions 
both central to the modem world view and ones long recognized by 
feminists as antithetical to the needs of women. Yeatman also claims an 
affinity between the type of individualism created by modernity, that is, 
that which is rooted in private property and that which has been central 
to the modem subordination of women. It is this very individualism, 
she claims, which has necessitated the modem demand for normative 
universals: 

Instead of a divinely sanctioned, consensual moral order, there emerges 
the decentered world of a plurality of individual agents responsible for 
their own destinies. At the same time that this order of individualized 
agency undermines all religious presuppositions and secularizes our 



14 / Introduction 


reality, the primitive type of individuality involved necessitates that 
there be a single standard or norm of authority which subordinates the 
plurality of individualized agency, and renders it so many distinct 
versions of this sole authoritative voice. Accordingly, the implications 
of the modernist discovery of the existence of individualized and there¬ 
fore plural values are contained in the face of the necessity to reduce 
this plurality to a single standard. 

On the grounds, therefore, of sharing common enemies, Yeatman sees 
an affinity between feminism and postmodernism. However, she also sees 
dangers for feminism in certain versions of postmodernism, dangers which 
she aligns with relativism. One could extend her discussion to note that 
postmodernism might emerge as an extension of the individualism of 
modernity, only now deprived of its subordinating universals. The result 
would be the kind of absolute endorsement of particularity and difference 
that Bordo warns against. Following Haraway’s description of the post¬ 
modern as an era of both dangers and possibilities, we could also say that 
such dangers, like the possibilities, emerge out of the specific features of 
the time. For Yeatman, such features include the increasing inability of 
privileged groups to use the universals of modernity to sustain their power. 
Or as suggested in the essay by Elspeth Probyn, they might even include 
the emergence of an attitude towards difference suggested by the experi¬ 
ence of tourism: where diversity is experienced in its most superficial 
manifestations. In short, to move beyond modernist ideas of differentiation 
is to move in potentially many different directions. 

Moreover, even knowing what it is to “move beyond modernist ideas” 
may not always be clear. For example, as Iris Young argues, one category 
to which leftists and feminists have frequently appealed to counter the 
alienation and individualism of modem Western society, has been that 
of “community.” Insofar as feminists have often viewed the distinction 
between individual and community as also culturally associated with the 
distinctions of the masculine and the feminine, the calculative and the 
affective and the instrumental and the authentic, they have looked to 
“community” as expressing those ideals most positively and authentically 
female. Yet, Young warns us that the very ideal which community repre¬ 
sents may be so tied within modernity to the individualism it seeks to 
reject, so as to negate its worth as a truly liberatory ideal: 

Like most such oppositions, moreover, individualism and community 
have a common logic underlying their polarity, which makes it possible 
for them to define each other negatively. Each entails a denial of 
difference and desire to bring multiplicity and heterogeneity into unity, 
though in opposing ways. Liberal individualism denies difference by 
positing the self as a solid, self-sufficient unity, not defined by or in 



Introduction / 15 


need of anything or anyone other than itself. Its formalistic ethic of 
rights denies difference by leveling all such separated individuals under 
a common measure of rights. Community, on the other hand, denies 
difference by positing fusion rather than separation as the social ideal. 

Moreover, as Young notes, the ideal of community discourages the 
development of respect among people for those with whom they do not 
identify. By looking to small-town life as most exemplary of this ideal, 
it also negates the fact of the city as an historical given. Indeed, many of 
the same people who pay theoretical homage to the ideal of community 
also concretely enjoy the energy and diversity of the city as well as the 
very anonymity they might theoretically reject. 

That any given category may not be obviously apparent as either “mod¬ 
em” or “postmodern” as well as either dangerous or liberatory is also 
made apparent in analyzing the category central to feminist discussions of 
social differentiation: gender. On the one hand, the recognition of this 
category as central in understanding human thought and behavior has been 
a major feminist accomplishment. Insofar as the use of this category 
represents a necessary refinement of the encompassing category of “hu¬ 
manity,” this accomplishment might also be described as postmodern. 
However, in so far as the category is given substantive, cross-cultural 
content, there arises the possibility that it becomes totalizing and discrimi¬ 
nating against the experiences and realities of some. Moreover, as Judith 
Butler demonstrates in “Gender Trouble, Feminist Theory, and Psychoan¬ 
alytic Discourse,” the dangers are not only that of shutting out the experi¬ 
ences of women not white. Western, middle-class and of the late twentieth 
century, but of constructing notions of self-identity which are implicitly 
heterosexist. 

A central thesis of Judith Butler’s essay is that gender identity is a 
regulative ideal which fundamentally assists the norm of heterosexuality. 
Psychoanalytic theory, in its diverse forms, including object relations 
theory and Lacanian and post-Lacanian theory, aids this regulative pro¬ 
cess. Such theory both “confers a false sense of legitimacy and universality 
to a culturally specific, and, in some contexts, culturally oppressive, 
version of gender identity” and contributes to the heterosexual ideal by 
intertwining gender identity and sexual orientation: 

Within these appropriations of psychoanalytic theory, gender identity 
and sexual orientation are accomplished at once. Although the story of 
sexual development is complicated, and quite different for the girl than 
for the boy, it appeals in both contexts to an operative disjunction that 
remains stable throughout: One identifies with one sex and, in so doing, 
desires the other, that desire being the elaboration of that identity, 



16 / Introduction 


the mode by which it creates its opposite and defines itself in that 
opposition. . . . Granted, it may well be a woman, male-identified, 
who desires another woman, or a man, female-identified, who desires 
another man, and it may also be a woman, male-identified, who desires 
a man, female-identified, or similarly, a man, female-identified, who 
desires a woman, male-identified. One either identifies with a sex or 
desires it, but only those two relations are possible. 

Moreover, according to Butler, it is the very belief in gender identity 
as a core unity which causes our sexual orientation, which keeps from 
view the very political and disciplinary processes which produce the 
ostensible coherence of gender identity. On these grounds, then, notions 
of gender identity are not the point of our liberation but rather the ground¬ 
ing of our continuing oppression. 

Following Butler’s argument, we might speculate that a notion of gender 
identity as the cause of sexual orientation became of use in the twentieth- 
century West as a means to ensure widespread conformity with heterosex¬ 
ual norms in a context where the reproduction of children no longer 
operated as sufficient motivation. However, more relevant here than ex¬ 
plaining why a notion of gender identity could have come to be used in 
controlling ways is the more methodological issue that the very categories 
we use to liberate us may also have their controlling moment. The task 
then is to be sensitive to the complexities of social demands and social 
changes which can make the use of the very same category both dangerous 
and liberating. 

It is difficult to know whether to describe such a sensitivity as “modem” 
or “postmodern.” Certainly, the pragmatism, wariness toward absolutes, 
and the recognition of complexities that such a sensitivity represents, are 
all symptomatic of “the postmodern turn.” On the other hand, as attitudes 
of both theoretical and political practice, they also have clear roots within 
modernity. In this sense, to describe such a sensitivity as modem or 
postmodern may be less important than emphasizing its centrality to the 
needs of feminism. At least with such a conclusion, I believe, all of the 
contributors to this volume would surely agree. 



Part I 

Feminism As Against 
Epistemology? 



1 


Social Criticism without Philosophy: 
An Encounter between 
Feminism and Postmodernism 

Nancy Fraser and Linda J. Nicholson 


Feminism and postmodernism have emerged as two of the most impor¬ 
tant political-cultural currents of the last decade. So far, however, they 
have kept an uneasy distance from one another. Indeed, so great has been 
their mutual wariness that there have been remarkably few extended 
discussions of the relations between them. 1 

Initial reticences aside, there are good reasons for exploring the relations 
between feminism and postmodernism. Both have offered deep and far- 
reaching criticisms of the institution of philosophy. Both have elaborated 
critical perspectives on the relation of philosophy to the larger culture. 
And, most central to the concerns of this essay, both have sought to 
develop new paradigms of social criticism which do not rely on traditional 
philosophical underpinnings. Other differences notwithstanding, one 
could say that during the last decade feminists and postmodernists have 
worked independently on a common nexus of problems: They have tried 
to rethink the relation between philosophy and social criticism so as to 
develop paradigms of criticism without philosophy. 

On the other hand, the two tendencies have proceeded from opposite direc¬ 
tions. Postmodernists have focused primarily on the philosophy side of the prob- 


This essay has previously appeared in Communication. Vol. 10, Nos. 3 and 4, 1988, 
pp. 345-366; Theory, Culture and Society, Vol. 5, Nos. 2 and 3, June 1988, pp. 373- 
394; Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism, ed. Andrew Ross (Minneapolis; 
University of Minnesota Press, 1988) pp. 83-104; The Institution of Philosophy: A 
Discipline in Crisis? ed. Avner Cohen and Marcelo Dascal (Peru. Illinois: Open Court 
Press, 1989). We are grateful for the helpful suggestions of many people, especially 
Jonathan Arac, Ann Ferguson. Marilyn Frye, Nancy Hartsock, Alison Jaggar, Berel Lang. 
Thomas McCarthy, Karsten Struhl, Iris Young, Thomas Wartenburg, and the members 
of SOFPH1A. We are also grateful for word-processing help from Marina Rosiene. 


19 


20 / Nancy Fraser and Linda J. Nicholson 


lem. They have begun by elaborating antifoundational metaphilosophical 
perspectives and from there have drawn conclusions about the shape and 
character of social criticism. For feminists, on the other hand, the question 
of philosophy has always been subordinate to an interest in social criticism. 
Consequently, they have begun by developing critical political perspectives 
and from there have drawn conclusions about the status of philosophy. As 
a result of this difference in emphasis and direction, the two tendencies have 
ended up with complementary strengths and weaknesses. Postmodernists 
offer sophisticated and persuasive criticisms of foundationalism and essen- 
tialism, but theirconceptions of social criticism tend to be anemic. Feminists 
offer robust conceptions of social criticism, but they tend at times to lapse 
into foundationalism and essentialism. 

Thus, each of the two perspectives suggests some important criticisms of 
the other. A postmodernist reflection on feminist theory reveals disabling 
vestiges of essentialism while a feminist reflection on postmodernism 
reveals androcentrism and political naivete. 

It follows that an encounter between feminism and postmodernism will 
initially be a trading of criticisms. But there is no reason to suppose that 
this is where matters must end. In fact, each of these tendencies has much 
to learn from the other; each is in possession of valuable resources which 
can help remedy the deficiencies of the other. Thus, the ultimate stake of 
an encounter between feminism and postmodernism is the prospect of a 
perspective which integrates their respective strengths while eliminating 
their respective weaknesses. It is the prospect of a postmodernist fem¬ 
inism. 

In what follows, we aim to contribute to the development of such a 
perspective by staging the initial, critical phase of the encounter. In the 
first section, we examine the ways in which one exemplary postmodernist, 
Jean-Francjois Lyotard, has sought to derive new paradigms of social 
criticism from a critique of the institution of philosophy. We argue that 
the conception of social criticism so derived is too restricted to permit an 
adequate critical grasp of gender dominance and subordination. We iden¬ 
tify some internal tensions in Lyotard’s arguments, and we suggest some 
alternative formulations which could allow for more robust forms of 
criticism without sacrificing the commitment to antifoundationalism. In 
the second section, we examine some representative genres of feminist 
social criticism. We argue that in many cases feminist critics continue 
tacitly to rely on the sorts of philosophical underpinnings which their own 
commitments, like those of the postmodernists, ought in principle to rule 
out. We identify some points at which such underpinnings could be 
abandoned without any sacrifice of social-critical force. Finally, in a brief 
conclusion, we consider the prospects for a postmodernist feminism. We 
discuss some requirements which constrain the development of such a 



Social Criticism without Philosophy / 21 


perspective, and we identify some pertinent conceptual resources and 
critical strategies. 

Postmodernism 

Postmodernists seek, inter alia, to develop conceptions of social criti¬ 
cism which do not rely on traditional philosophical underpinnings. The 
typical starting point for their efforts is a reflection on the condition of 
philosophy today. Writers like Richard Rorty and Jean-Francois Lyotard 
begin by arguing that Philosophy with a capital P is no longer a viable or 
credible enterprise. They go on to claim that philosophy and, by extension, 
theory in general, can no longer function to ground politics and social 
criticism. With the demise of foundationalism comes the demise of the 
view that casts philosophy in the role of founding discourse vis-a-vis 
social criticism. That “modem” conception must give way to a new 
“postmodern” one in which criticism floats free of any universalist theoreti¬ 
cal ground. No longer anchored philosophically, the very shape or charac¬ 
ter of social criticism changes; it becomes more pragmatic, ad hoc, contex¬ 
tual, and local. With this change comes a corresponding change in the 
social role and political function of intellectuals. 

Thus, in the postmodern reflection on the relationship between philoso¬ 
phy and social criticism, the term ‘philosophy’ undergoes an explicit 
devaluation; it is cut down to size, if not eliminated altogether. Yet, even 
as this devaluation is argued explicitly, the term ‘philosophy’ retains an 
implicit structural privilege. It is the changed condition of philosophy 
which determines the changed character of social criticism and of engaged 
intellectual practice. In the new postmodern equation, then, philosophy 
is the independent variable while social criticism and political practice are 
dependent variables. The view of theory which emerges is not determined 
by considering the needs of contemporary criticism and engagement. It is 
determined, rather, by considering the contemporary status of philosophy. 
This way of proceeding has important consequences, not all of which are 
positive. Among the results is a certain underestimation and premature 
foreclosing of possibilities for social criticism and engaged intellectual 
practice. This limitation of postmodern thought will be apparent when we 
consider its results in the light of the needs of contemporary feminist 
theory and practice. 

Let us consider as an example the postmodernism of Jean-Francois 
Lyotard, since it is genuinely exemplary of the larger tendency. Lyotard 
is one of the few social thinkers widely considered postmodern who 
actually uses the term; indeed, it was he himself who introduced it into 
current discussions of philosophy, politics, society, and social theory. 
His book The Postmodern Condition has become the locus classicus for 



22 / Nancy Fraser and Linda J. Nicholson 


contemporary debates, and it reflects in an especially acute form the 
characteristic concerns and tensions of the movement. 2 

For Lyotard, postmodernism designates a general condition of contem¬ 
porary Western civilization. The postmodern condition is one in which 
“grand narratives of legitimation” are no longer credible. By grand narra¬ 
tives he means overarching philosophies of history like the Enlightenment 
story of the gradual but steady progress of reason and freedom, Hegel’s 
dialectic of Spirit coming to know itself, and, most importantly, Marx’s 
drama of the forward march of human productive capacities via class 
conflict culminating in proletarian revolution. For Lyotard, these metanar¬ 
ratives instantiate a specifically modem approach to the problem of legiti¬ 
mation. Each situates first-order discursive practices of inquiry and politics 
within a broader totalizing metadiscourse which legitimates them. The 
metadiscourse narrates a story about the whole of human history which 
purports to guarantee that the pragmatics of the modem sciences and of 
modem political processes—the norms and rules which govern these 
practices, determining what counts as a warranted move within them— 
are themselves legitimate. The story guarantees that some sciences and 
some politics have the right pragmatics and, so, are the right practices. 

We should not be misled by Lyotard’s focus on narrative philosophies 
of history. In his conception of legitimating metanarrative, the stress 
properly belongs on the meta and not on the narrative. For what most 
interests him about the Enlightenment, Hegelian, and Marxist stories is 
what they share with other nonnarrative forms of philosophy. Like ahistori- 
cal epistemologies and moral theories, they aim to show that specific first- 
order discursive practices are well formed and capable of yielding true 
and just results. True and just here mean something more than results 
reached by adhering scrupulously to the constitutive mles of some given 
scientific and political games. They mean, rather, results which correspond 
to Truth and Justice as they really are in themselves independently of 
contingent, historical social practices. Thus, in Lyotard’s view, a metanar¬ 
rative is meta in a very strong sense. It purports to be a privileged discourse 
capable of situating, characterizing, and evaluating all other discourses 
but not itself to be infected by the historicity and contingency which render 
first-order discourses potentially distorted and in need of legitimation. 

In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard argues that metanarratives, 
whether philosophies of history or nonnarrative foundational philosophies, 
are merely modem and depasse. We can no longer believe, he claims, in 
the availability of a privileged metadiscourse capable of capturing once 
and for all the truth of every first-order discourse. The claim to meta status 
does not stand up. A so-called metadiscourse is in fact simply one more 
discourse among others. It follows for Lyotard that legitimation, both 
epistemic and political, can no longer reside in philosophical metanarra- 



Social Criticism without Philosophy / 23 


tives. Where, then, he asks, does legitimation reside in the postmodern 
era? 

Much of The Postmodern Condition is devoted to sketching an answer 
to that question. The answer, in brief, is that in the postmodern era 
legitimation becomes plural, local, and immanent. In this era, there will 
necessarily be many discourses of legitimation dispersed among the plural¬ 
ity of first-order discursive practices. For example, scientists no longer 
look to prescriptive philosophies of science to warrant their procedures of 
inquiry. Rather, they themselves problematize, modify, and warrant the 
constitutive norms of their own practice even as they engage in it. Instead 
of hovering above, legitimation descends to the level of practice and 
becomes immanent in it. There are no special tribunals set apart from the 
sites where inquiry is practiced. Rather, practitioners assume responsibil¬ 
ity for legitimizing their own practice. 

Lyotard intimates that something similar is or should be happening with 
respect to political legitimation. We cannot have and do not need a single, 
overarching theory of justice. What is required, rather, is a “justice of 
multiplicities.” 3 What Lyotard means by this is not wholly clear. On one 
level, he can be read as offering a normative vision in which the good 
society consists in a decentralized plurality of democratic, self-managing 
groups and institutions whose members problematize the norms of their 
practice and take responsibility for modifying them as situations require. 
But paradoxically, on another level, he can be read as ruling out the 
sort of larger-scale, normative political theorizing which, from a modem 
perspective at least, would be required to legitimate such a vision. In any 
case, his justice of multiplicities conception precludes one familiar, and 
arguably essential, genre of political theory: identification and critique of 
macrostructures of inequality and injustice which cut across the boundaries 
separating relatively discrete practices and institutions. There is no place 
in Lyotard’s universe for critique of pervasive axes of stratification, for 
critique of broad-based relations of dominance and subordination along 
lines like gender, race, and class. 

Lyotard’s suspicion of the large extends to historical narrative and social 
theory as well. Here, his chief target is Marxism, the one metanarrative 
in France with enough lingering credibility to be worth arguing against. 
The problem with Marxism, in his view, is twofold. On the one hand, the 
Marxian story is too big, since it spans virtually the whole of human 
history. On the other hand, the Marxian story is too theoretical, since it 
relies on a theory of social practice and social relations which claims to 
explain historical change. At one level, Lyotard simply rejects the specifics 
of this theory. He claims that the Marxian conception of practice as 
production occludes the diversity and plurality of human practices; and 
that the Marxian conception of capitalist society as a totality traversed by 



24 / Nancy Fraser and Linda J. Nicholson 


one major division and contradiction occludes the diversity and plurality 
of contemporary societal differences and oppositions. But Lyotard does 
not conclude that such deficiencies can and should be remedied by a better 
social theory. Rather, he rejects the project of social theory tout court. 

Once again, Lyotard’s position is ambiguous, since his rejection of 
social theory depends on a theoretical perspective of sorts of its own. He 
offers a postmodern conception of sociality and social identity, a concep¬ 
tion of what he calls “the social bond.” What holds a society together, he 
claims, is not a common consciousness or institutional substructure. 
Rather, the social bond is a weave of crisscrossing threads of discursive 
practices, no single one of which runs continuously throughout the whole. 
Individuals are the nodes or posts where such practices intersect, and so, 
they participate in many practices simultaneously. It follows that social 
identities are complex and heterogeneous. They cannot be mapped onto 
one another nor onto the social totality. Indeed, strictly speaking, there is 
no social totality and a fortiori no possibility of a totalizing social theory. 

Thus, Lyotard insists that the field of the social is heterogeneous and 
nontotalizable. As a result, he rules out the sort of critical social theory 
which employs general categories like gender, race, and class. From his 
perspective, such categories are too reductive of the complexity of social 
identities to be useful. There is apparently nothing to be gained, in his 
view, by situating an account of the fluidity and diversity of discursive 
practices in the context of a critical analysis of large-scale institutions and 
social structures. 

Thus, Lyotard’s postmodern conception of criticism without philosophy 
rules out several recognizable genres of social criticism. From the premise 
that criticism cannot be grounded by a foundationalist philosophical meta¬ 
narrative, he infers the illegitimacy of large historical stories, normative 
theories of justice, and social-theoretical accounts of macrostructures 
which institutionalize inequality. What, then, does postmodern social 
criticism look like? 

Lyotard tries to fashion some new genres of social criticism from the 
discursive resources that remain. Chief among these is smallish, localized 
narrative. He seeks to vindicate such narrative against both modem totaliz¬ 
ing metanarrative and the scientism that is hostile to all narrative. One 
genre of postmodern social criticism, then, consists in relatively discrete, 
local stories about the emergence, transformation, and disappearance of 
various discursive practices treated in isolation from one another. Such 
stories might resemble those told by Michel Foucault, although without 
the attempts to discern larger synchronic patterns and connections that 
Foucault sometimes made. 4 Like Michael Walzer, Lyotard evidently as¬ 
sumes that practitioners would narrate such stories when seeking to per¬ 
suade one another to modify the pragmatics or constitutive norms of their 
practice. 5 



Social Criticism without Philosophy / 25 


This genre of social criticism is not the whole postmodern story, how¬ 
ever. For it casts critique as strictly local, ad hoc, and ameliorative, thus 
supposing a political diagnosis according to which there are no large-scale, 
systemic problems which resist local, ad hoc, ameliorative initiatives. Yet, 
Lyotard recognizes that postmodern society does contain at least one 
unfavorable structural tendency which requires a more coordinated re¬ 
sponse. This is the tendency to universalize instrumental reason, to subject 
all discursive practices indiscriminately to the single criterion of effi¬ 
ciency, or “performativity.” In Lyotard’s view, this threatens the auton¬ 
omy and integrity of science and politics, since these practices are not 
properly subordinated to performative standards. It would pervert and 
distort them, thereby destroying the diversity of discursive forms. 

Thus, even as he argues explicitly against it, Lyotard posits the need 
for a genre of social criticism which transcends local mininarrative. De¬ 
spite his strictures against large, totalizing stories, he narrates a fairly tall 
tale about a large-scale social trend. Moreover, the logic of this story, and 
of the genre of criticism to which it belongs, calls for judgments which are 
not strictly practice-immanent. Lyotard’s story presupposes the legitimacy 
and integrity of the scientific and political practices allegedly threatened 
by performativity. It supposes that one can distinguish changes or develop¬ 
ments which are internal to these practices from externally induced distor¬ 
tions. But this drives Lyotard to make normative judgments about the 
value and character of the threatened practices. These judgments are not 
strictly immanent in the practices judged. Rather, they are metapractical. 

Thus, Lyotard’s view of postmodern social criticism is neither entirely 
self-consistent nor entirely persuasive. He goes too quickly from the 
premise that Philosophy cannot ground social criticism to the conclusion 
that criticism itself must be local, ad hoc, and nontheoretical. As a result, 
he throws out the baby of large historical narrative with the bathwater of 
philosophical metanarrative and the baby of social-theoretical analysis of 
large-scale inequalities with the bathwater of reductive Marxian class 
theory. Moreover, these allegedly illegitimate babies do not in fact remain 
excluded. They return like the repressed within the very genres of post¬ 
modern social criticism with which Lyotard intends to replace them. 

We began this discussion by noting that postmodernists orient their 
reflections on the character of postmodern social criticism by the falling 
star of foundationalist philosophy. They posit that, with philosophy no 
longer able credibly to ground social criticism, criticism itself must be 
local, ad hoc, and untheoretical. Thus, from the critique of foundational- 
ism, they infer the illegitimacy of several genres of social criticism. For 
Lyotard, the illegitimate genres include large-.$cale historical narrative 
and social-theoretical analyses of pervasive relations of dominance and 
subordination. 6 

Suppose, however, one were to choose another starting point for reflect- 



26 / Nancy Fraser and Linda J. Nicholson 


ing on postfoundational social criticism. Suppose one began, not with the 
condition of Philosophy, but with the nature of the social object one 
wished to criticize. Suppose, further, that one defined that object as the 
subordination of women to and by men. Then, we submit, it would be 
apparent that many of the genres rejected by postmodernists are necessary 
for social criticism. For a phenomenon as pervasive and multifaceted as 
male dominance simply cannot be adequately grasped with the meager 
critical resources to which they would limit us. On the contrary, effective 
criticism of this phenomenon requires an array of different methods and 
genres. It requires at minimum large narratives about changes in social 
organization and ideology, empirical and social-theoretical analyses of 
macrostructures and institutions, interactionist analyses of the micropoli¬ 
tics of everyday life, critical-hermeneutical and institutional analyses of 
cultural production, historically and culturally specific sociologies of gen¬ 
der, and so on. The list could go on. 

Clearly, not all of these approaches are local and untheoretical. But all 
are nonetheless essential to feminist social criticism. Moreover, all can in 
principle be conceived in ways that do not take us back to foundationalism, 
even though, as we argue in the next section, many feminists have not 
wholly succeeded in avoiding that trap. 

Feminism 

Feminists, like postmodernists, have sought to develop new paradigms 
of social criticism which do not rely on traditional philosophical underpin¬ 
nings. They have criticized modern foundationalist epistemologies and 
moral and political theories, exposing the contingent, partial, and histori¬ 
cally situated character of what has passed in the mainstream for necessary, 
universal, and ahistorical truths. They have called into question the domi¬ 
nant philosophical project of seeking objectivity in the guise of a “God’s 
eye view” which transcends any situation or perspective. 7 

However, if postmodernists have been drawn to such views by a concern 
with the status of philosophy, feminists have been led to them by the 
demands of political practice. This practical interest has saved feminist 
theory from many of the mistakes of postmodernism: Women whose 
theorizing was to serve the struggle against sexism were not about to 
abandon powerful political tools merely as a result of intramural debates 
in professional philosophy. 

Yet, even as the imperatives of political practice have saved feminist 
theory from one set of difficulties, they have tended at times to incline it 
toward another. Practical imperatives have led some feminists to adopt 
modes of theorizing which resemble the sorts of philosophical metanarra¬ 
tive rightly criticized by postmodernists. To be sure, the feminist theories 



Social Criticism without Philosophy / 27 


we have in mind here are not pure metanarratives; they are not ahistorical 
normative theories about the transcultural nature of rationality or justice. 
Rather, they are very large social theories—theories of history, society, 
culture, and psychology—which claim, for example, to identify causes 
and constitutive features of sexism that operate cross-culturally. Thus, 
these social theories purport to be empirical rather than philosophical. 
But, as we hope to show, they are actually quasi-metanarratives. They 
tacitly presuppose some commonly held but unwarranted and essentialist 
assumptions about the nature of human beings and the conditions for social 
life. In addition, they assume methods and concepts which are uninflected 
by temporality or historicity and which therefore function de facto as 
permanent, neutral matrices for inquiry. Such theories then, share some 
of the essentialist and ahistorical features of metanarratives: They are 
insufficiently attentive to historical and cultural diversity, and they falsely 
universalize features of the theorist’s own era, society, culture, class, 
sexual orientation, and ethnic, or racial group. 

On the other hand, the practical exigencies inclining feminists to pro¬ 
duce quasi-metanarratives have by no means held undisputed sway. 
Rather, they have had to coexist, often uneasily, with counterexigencies 
which have worked to opposite effect, for example, political pressures to 
acknowledge differences among women. In general, then, the recent 
history of feminist social theory reflects a tug of war between forces which 
have encouraged and forces which have discouraged metanarrative-like 
modes of theorizing. We can illustrate this dynamic by looking at a few 
important turning points in this history. 

When in the 1960s, women in the New Left began to extend prior talk 
about women’s rights into the more encompassing discussion of women’s 
liberation, they encountered the fear and hostility of their male comrades 
and the use of Marxist political theory as a support for these reactions. 
Many men of the New Left argued that gender issues were secondary 
because they were subsumable under more basic modes of oppression, 
namely, class and race. 

In response to this practical-political problem, radical feminists such as 
Shulamith Firestone resorted to an ingenious tactical maneuver: Firestone 
invoked biological differences between women and men to explain sexism. 
This enabled her to turn the tables on her Marxist comrades by claiming 
that gender conflict was the most basic form of human conflict and the 
source of all other forms, including class conflict. 14 Firestone drew on the 
pervasive tendency within modem culture to locate the roots of gender 
differences in biology. Her coup was to use biologism to establish the 
primacy of the struggle against male domination rather than to justify 
acquiescence to it. 

The trick, of course, is problematic from a postmodernist perspective 



28 / Nancy Fraser and Linda J. Nicholson 


in that appeals to biology to explain social phenomena are essentialist and 
monocausal. They are essentialist insofar as they project onto all women 
and men qualities which develop under historically specific social condi¬ 
tions. They are monocausal insofar as they look to one set of characteris¬ 
tics, such as women’s physiology or men’s hormones, to explain women’s 
oppression in all cultures. These problems are only compounded when 
appeals to biology are used in conjunction with the dubious claim that 
women’s oppression is the cause of all other forms of oppression. 

Moreover, as Marxists and feminist anthropologists began insisting in 
the early 1970s, appeals to biology do not allow us to understand the 
enormous diversity of forms which both gender and sexism assume in 
different cultures. In fact, it was not long before most feminist social 
theorists came to appreciate that accounting for the diversity of the forms 
of sexism was as important as accounting for its depth and autonomy. 
Gayle Rubin aptly described this dual requirement as the need to formulate 
theory which could account for the oppression of women in its “endless 
variety and monotonous similarity.” 9 How were feminists to develop a 
social theory adequate to both demands? 

One approach which seemed promising was suggested by Michelle 
Zimbalist Rosaldo and other contributors in the influential 1974 anthropol¬ 
ogy collection, Woman, Culture, and Society. They argued that common 
to all known societies was some type of separation between a domestic 
sphere and a public sphere, the former associated with women and the 
latter with men. Because in most societies to date, women have spent a 
good part of their lives bearing and raising children, their lives have been 
more bound to the domestic sphere. Men, on the other hand, have had 
both the time and mobility to engage in those out of the home activities 
which generate political structures. Thus, as Rosaldo argued, while in 
many societies women possess some or even a great deal of power, 
women’s power is always viewed as illegitimate, disruptive, and without 
authority. 0 

This approach seemed to allow for both diversity and ubiquity in the 
manifestations of sexism. A very general identification of women with 
the domestic and of men with the extra-domestic could accommodate a 
great deal of cultural variation both in social structures and in gender 
roles. At the same time, it could make comprehensible the apparent 
ubiquity of the assumption of women’s inferiority above and beyond such 
variation. This hypothesis was also compatible with the idea that the extent 
of women’s oppression differed in different societies. It could explain 
such differences by correlating the extent of gender inequality in a society 
with the extent and rigidity of the separation between its domestic and 
public spheres. In short, the domestic/public theorists seemed to have 
generated an explanation capable of satisfying a variety of conflicting 
demands. 



Social Criticism without Philosophy / 29 


However, this explanation turned out to be problematic in ways reminis¬ 
cent of Firestone’s account. Although the theory focused on differences 
between men’s and women’s spheres of activity rather than on differences 
between men’s and women’s biology, it was essentialist and monocausal 
nonetheless. It posited the existence of a domestic sphere in all societies 
and thereby assumed that women’s activities were basically similar in 
content and significance across cultures. (An analogous assumption about 
men’s activities lay behind the postulation of a universal public sphere.) 
In effect, the theory falsely generalized to all societies an historically 
specific conjunction of properties: women’s responsibility for early child 
rearing, women’s tendency to spend more time in the geographical space 
of the home, women’s lesser participation in the affairs of the community, 
a cultural ascription of triviality to domestic work, and a cultural ascription 
of inferiority to women. The theory thus failed to appreciate that, while 
each individual property may be true of many societies, the conjunction 
is not true of most." 

One source of difficulty in these early feminist social theories was the 
presumption of an overly grandiose and totalizing conception of theory. 
Theory was understood as the search for the one key factor which would 
explain sexism cross-culturally and illuminate all of social life. In this 
sense, to theorize was by definition to produce a quasi-metanarrative. 

Since the late 1970s, feminist social theorists have largely ceased speak¬ 
ing of biological determinants or a cross-cultural domestic/public separa¬ 
tion. Many, moreover, have given up the assumption of monocausality. 
Nevertheless, some feminist social theorists have continued implicitly to 
suppose a quasi-metanarrative conception of theory. They have continued 
to theorize in terms of a putatively unitary, primary, culturally universal 
type of activity associated with women, generally an activity conceived 
as domestic and located in the family. 

One influential example is the analysis of mothering developed by 
Nancy Chodorow. Setting herself to explain the internal, psychological 
dynamics which have led many women willingly to reproduce social 
divisions associated with female inferiority, Chodorow posited a cross- 
cultural activity, mothering, as the relevant object of investigation. Her 
question thus became: How is mothering as a female-associated activity 
reproduced over time? How does mothering produce a new generation of 
women with the psychological inclination to mother and a new generation 
of men not so inclined? The answer she offered was in terms of gender 
identity: Female mothering produces women whose deep sense of self is 
relational and men whose deep sense of self is not. 12 

Chodorow’s theory has struck many feminists as a persuasive account 
of some apparently observable psychic differences between men and 
women. Yet, the theory has clear metanarrative overtones. It posits the 
existence of a single activity, mothering, which, while differing in spe- 



30 / Nancy Fraser and Linda J. Nicholson 


cifics in different societies, nevertheless constitutes enough of a natural 
kind to warrant one label. It stipulates that this basically unitary activity 
gives rise to two distinct sorts of deep selves, one relatively common 
across cultures to women, the other relatively common across cultures to 
men. It claims that the difference thus generated between feminine and 
masculine gender identity causes a variety of supposedly cross-cultural 
social phenomena, including the continuation of female mothering, male 
contempt for women, and problems in heterosexual relationships. 

From a postmodern perspective, all of these assumptions are problem¬ 
atic because they are essentialist. But the second one, concerning gender 
identity, warrants special scrutiny, given its political implications. Con¬ 
sider that Chodorow’s use of the notion of gender identity presupposes 
three major premises. One is the psychoanalytic premise that everyone 
has a deep sense of self which is constituted in early childhood through 
one’s interactions with one’s primary parent and which remains relatively 
constant thereafter. Another is the premise that this deep self differs 
significantly for men and for women but is roughly similar among women, 
on the one hand, and among men, on the other hand, both across cultures 
and within cultures across lines of class, race, and ethnicity. The third 
premise is that this deep self colors everything one does; there are no 
actions, however trivial, which do not bear traces of one’s masculine or 
feminine gender identity. 

One can appreciate the political exigencies which made this conjunction 
of premises attractive. It gave scholarly substance to the idea of the 
pervasiveness of sexism. If masculinity and femininity constitute our 
basic and ever present sense of self, then it is not surprising that the 
manifestations of sexism are systemic. Moreover, many feminists had 
already sensed that the concept of sex-role socialization, an idea Chodorow 
explicitly criticized, ignored the depth and intractability of male domi¬ 
nance. By implying that measures such as changing images in school 
textbooks or allowing boys to play with dolls would be sufficient to bring 
about equality between the sexes, this concept seemed to trivialize and co¬ 
opt the message of feminism. Finally, Chodorow’s depth-psychological 
approach gave a scholarly sanction to the idea of sisterhood. It seemed to 
legitimate the claim that the ties which bind women are deep and substan¬ 
tively based. 

Needless to say, we have no wish to quarrel with the claim of the depth 
and pervasiveness of sexism nor with the idea of sisterhood. But we do 
wish to challenge Chodorow’s way of legitimating them. The idea of a 
cross-cultural, deep sense of self, specified differently for women and 
men, becomes problematic when given any specific content. Chodorow 
states that women everywhere differ from men in their greater concern 
with “relational interaction.” But what does she mean by this term? 



Social Criticism without Philosophy / 31 


Certainly not any and every kind of human interaction, since men have 
often been more concerned than women with some kinds of interactions, 
for example, those which have to do with the aggrandizement of power 
and wealth. Of course, it is true that many women in modem Western 
societies have been expected to exhibit strong concern with those types 
of interactions associated with intimacy, friendship, and love, interactions 
which dominate one meaning of the late twentieth-century concept of 
relationship. But surely this meaning presupposes a notion of private life 
specific to modem Western societies of the last two centuries. Is it possible 
that Chodorow’s theory rests on an equivocation on the term rela¬ 
tionship?' 3 

Equally troubling are the aporias this theory generates for political 
practice. While gender identity gives substance to the idea of sisterhood, 
it does so at the cost of repressing differences among sisters. Although 
the theory allows for some differences among women of different classes, 
races, sexual orientations, and ethnic groups, it construes these as subsid¬ 
iary to more basic similarities. But it is precisely as a consequence of the 
request to understand such differences as secondary that many women 
have denied an allegiance to feminism. 

We have dwelt at length on Chodorow because of the great influence 
her work has enjoyed. But she is not the only recent feminist social theorist 
who has constructed a quasi-metanarrative around a putatively cross- 
cultural female-associated activity. On the contrary, theorists like Ann 
Ferguson and Nancy Folbre, Nancy Hartsock, and Catharine MacKinnon 
have built similar theories around notions of sex-affective production, 
reproduction, and sexuality, respectively. 14 Each claims to have identified 
a basic kind of human practice found in all societies which has cross- 
cultural explanatory power. In each case, the practice in question is 
associated with a biological or quasi-biological need and is construed as 
functionally necessary to the reproduction of society. It is not the sort of 
thing, then, whose historical origins need be investigated. 

The difficulty here is that categories like sexuality, mothering, reproduc¬ 
tion, and sex-affective production group together phenomena which are 
not necessarily conjoined in all societies while separating off from one 
another phenomena which are not necessarily separated. As a matter of 
fact, it is doubtful whether these categories have any determinate cross- 
cultural content. Thus, for a theorist to use such categories to construct a 
universalistic social theory is to risk projecting the socially dominant 
conjunctions and dispersions of her own society onto others, thereby 
distorting important features of both. Social theorists would do better first 
to construct genealogies of the categories of sexuality, reproduction, and 
mothering before assuming their universal significance. 

Since around 1980, many feminist scholars have come to abandon the 



32 / Nancy Fraser and Linda J. Nicholson 


project of grand social theory. They have stopped looking for the causes 
of sexism and have turned to more concrete inquiry with more limited 
aims. One reason for this shift is the growing legitimacy of feminist 
scholarship. The institutionalization of women’s studies in the United 
States has meant a dramatic increase in the size of the community of 
feminist inquirers, a much greater division of scholarly labor, and a large 
and growing fund of concrete information. As a result, feminist scholars 
have come to regard their enterprise more collectively, more like a puzzle 
whose various pieces are being filled in by many different people than 
like a construction to be completed by a single grand theoretical stroke. 
In short, feminist scholarship has attained its maturity. 

Even in this phase, however, traces of youthful quasi-metanarratives 
remain. Some theorists who have ceased looking for the causes of sexism 
still rely on essentialist categories such as gender identity. This is espe¬ 
cially true of those scholars who have sought to develop gynocentric 
alternatives to mainstream androcentric perspectives but who have not 
fully abandoned the universalist pretensions of the latter. 

Consider, as an example, the work of Carol Gilligan. Unlike most of 
the theorists we have considered so far, Gilligan has not sought to explain 
the origins or nature of cross-cultural sexism. Rather, she set herself the 
more limited task of exposing and redressing androcentric bias in the 
model of moral development of psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. Thus, 
she argued that it is illegitimate to evaluate the moral development of 
women and girls by reference to a standard drawn exclusively from the 
experience of men and boys. She proposed to examine women’s moral 
discourse on its own terms in order to uncover its immanent standards of 
adequacy. 15 

Gilligan’s work has been rightly regarded as important and innovative. 
It challenged mainstream psychology’s persistent occlusion of women’s 
lives and experiences and its insistent but false claims to universality. Yet, 
insofar as Gilligan’s challenge involved the construction of an alternative 
feminine model of moral development, her position was ambiguous. On 
the one hand, by providing a counterexample to Kohlberg’s model, she 
cast doubt on the possibility of any single, universalist developmental 
schema. On the other hand, by constructing a female countermodel, she 
invited the same charge of false generalization she had herself raised 
against Kohlberg, although now from other perspectives such as class, 
sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity. Gilligan’s disclaimers notwith¬ 
standing, 16 to the extent that she described women’s moral development 
in terms of a different voice; to the extent that she did not specify which 
women, under which specific historical circumstances have spoken with 
the voice in question; and to the extent that she grounded her analysis in 
the explicitly cross-cultural framework of Nancy Chodorow, her model 



Social Criticism without Philosophy / 33 


remained essentialist. It perpetuated in a newer, more localized fashion 
traces of previous more grandiose quasi-metanarratives. 

Thus, vestiges of essentialism have continued to plague feminist schol¬ 
arship, even despite the decline of grand theorizing. In many cases, 
including Gilligan’s, this represents the continuing subterranean influence 
of those very mainstream modes of thought and inquiry with which femi¬ 
nists have wished to break. 

On the other hand, the practice of feminist politics in the 1980s has 
generated a new set of pressures which have worked against metanarra¬ 
tives. In recent years, poor and working-class women, women of color, 
and lesbians have finally won a wider hearing for their objections to 
feminist theories which fail to illuminate their lives and address their 
problems. They have exposed the earlier quasi-metanarratives, with their 
assumptions of universal female dependence and confinement to the do¬ 
mestic sphere, as false extrapolations from the experience of the white, 
middle-class, heterosexual women who dominated the beginnings of the 
second wave. For example, writers like Bell Hooks, Gloria Joseph, Audre 
Lord, Maria Lugones, and Elizabeth Spelman have unmasked the implicit 
reference to white Anglo women in many classic feminist texts. Likewise, 
Adrienne Rich and Marilyn Frye have exposed the heterosexist bias of 
much mainstream feminist theory. 17 Thus, as the class, sexual, racial, 
and ethnic awareness of the movement has altered, so has the preferred 
conception of theory. It has become clear that quasi-metanarratives hamper 
rather than promote sisterhood, since they elide differences among women 
and among the forms of sexism to which different women are differentially 
subject. Likewise, it is increasingly apparent that such theories hinder 
alliances with other progressive movements, since they tend to occlude 
axes of domination other than gender. In sum, there is growing interest 
among feminists in modes of theorizing which are attentive to differences 
and to cultural and historical specificity. 

In general, then, feminist scholarship of the 1980s evinces some con¬ 
flicting tendencies. On the one hand, there is decreasing interest in grand 
social theories as scholarship has become more localized, issue-oriented, 
and explicitly fallibilistic. On the other hand, essentialist vestiges persist 
in the continued use of ahistorical categories like gender identity without 
reflection as to how, when, and why such categories originated and were 
modified over time. This tension is symptomatically expressed in the 
current fascination, on the part of U.S. feminists, with French psychoana¬ 
lytic feminisms: The latter propositionally decry essentialism even as 
they performatively enact it. IS More generally, feminist scholarship has 
remained insufficiently attentive to the theoretical prerequisites of dealing 
with diversity, despite widespread commitment to accepting it politically. 

By criticizing lingering essentialism in contemporary feminist theory. 



34 / Nancy Fraser and Linda J. Nicholson 


we hope to encourage such theory to become more consistently postmod¬ 
ern. This is not, however, to recommend merely any form of postmodern¬ 
ism. On the contrary, as we have shown, the version developed by 
Jean-Francois Lyotard offers a weak and inadequate conception of social 
criticism without philosophy. It rules out genres of criticism, such as large 
historical narrative and historically situated social theory, which feminists 
rightly regard as indispensable. But it does not follow from Lyotard’s 
shortcomings that criticism without philosophy is in principle incompatible 
with criticism with social force. Rather, as we argue next, a robust 
postmodem-feminist paradigm of social criticism without philosophy is 
possible. 

Toward a Postmodern Feminism 

How can we combine a postmodernist incredulity toward metanarratives 
with the social-critical power of feminism? How can we conceive a version 
of criticism without philosophy which is robust enough to handle the 
tough job of analyzing sexism in all its endless variety and monotonous 
similarity? 

A first step is to recognize, contra Lyotard, that postmodern critique 
need forswear neither large historical narratives nor analyses of societal 
macrostructures. This point is important for feminists, since sexism has 
a long history and is deeply and pervasively embedded in contemporary 
societies. Thus, postmodern feminists need not abandon the large theoreti¬ 
cal tools needed to address large political problems. There is nothing self¬ 
contradictory in the idea of a postmodern theory. 

However, if postmodem-feminist critique must remain theoretical, not 
just any kind of theory will do. Rather, theory here would be explicitly 
historical, attuned to the cultural specificity of different societies and 
periods and to that of different groups within societies and periods. Thus, 
the categories of postmodem-feminist theory would be inflected by tempo¬ 
rality, with historically specific institutional categories like the modem, 
restricted, male-headed, nuclear family taking precedence over ahistori- 
cal, functionalist categories like reproduction and mothering. Where cate¬ 
gories of the latter sort were not eschewed altogether, they would be 
genealogized, that is, framed by a historical narrative and rendered tempo¬ 
rally and culturally specific. 

Moreover, postmodem-feminist theory would be nonuniversalist. When 
its focus became cross-cultural or transepochal, its mode of attention 
would be comparativist rather than universalizing, attuned to changes and 
contrasts instead of to covering laws. Finally, postmodem-feminist theory 
would dispense with the idea of a subject of history. It would replace 
unitary notions of woman and feminine gender identity with plural and 



Social Criticism without Philosophy / 35 


complexly constructed conceptions of social identity, treating gender as 
one relevant strand among others, attending also to class, race, ethnicity, 
age, and sexual orientation. 

In general, postmodem-feminist theory would be pragmatic and fallibi- 
listic. It would tailor its methods and categories to the specific task at 
hand, using multiple categories when appropriate and forswearing the 
metaphysical comfort of a single feminist method or feminist epistemol¬ 
ogy. In short, this theory would look more like a tapestry composed of 
threads of many different hues than one woven in a single color. 

The most important advantage of this sort of theory would be its 
usefulness for contemporary feminist political practice. Such practice is 
increasingly a matter of alliances rather than one of unity around a univer¬ 
sally shared interest or identity. It recognizes that the diversity of women’s 
needs and experiences means that no single solution, on issues like child 
care, social security, and housing, can be adequate for all. Thus, the 
underlying premise of this practice is that, while some women share some 
common interests and face some common enemies, such commonalities 
are by no means universal; rather, they are interlaced with differences, 
even with conflicts. This, then, is a practice made up of a patchwork of 
overlapping alliances, not one circumscribable by an essential definition. 
One might best speak of it in the plural as the practice of feminisms. In 
a sense, this practice is in advance of much contemporary feminist theory. 
It is already implicitly postmodern. It would find its most appropriate and 
useful theoretical expression in a postmodem-feminist form of critical 
inquiry. Such inquiry would be the theoretical counterpart of a broader, 
richer, more complex, and multilayered feminist solidarity, the sort of 
solidarity which is essential for overcoming the oppression of women in 
its “endless variety and monotonous similarity.” 


Notes 

1. Exceptions are Jane Flax, “Gender as a Social Problem: In and For Feminist 
Theory,” American Studies!Amerika Studien, June 1986, (an earlier version 
of the paper in this book); Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Femi¬ 
nism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986) and “The Instability of 
the Analytical Categories of Feminist Theory,” Signs: Journal of Women 
in Culture and Society, Vol. 11, No. 4, 1986, pp. 645-664; Donna Hara- 
way, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Femi¬ 
nism in the 1980s,” Socialist Review, No. 80, 1983, pp. 65-107; Alice A. 
Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations of Women and Modernity (Ithaca, NY: 
Cornell University Press, 1985); Jean-Francois Lyotard, “Some of the 
Things at Stake in Women’s Struggles,” trans. Deborah J. Clarke, Winifred 
Woodhull, and John Mow'wx, Sub-Stance, No. 20, 1978; Craig Owens, “The 



36 / Nancy Fraser and Linda J. Nicholson 

Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism.” The Anti-Aesthetic: 
Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, WA: Bay 
Press, 1983). 

2. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowl¬ 
edge, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Minneapolis: University of 
Minnesota Press, 1984). 

3. Ibid. Cf. Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thebaud, Just Gaming 
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987); also Jean-Francois 
Lyotard, “The Differend,” Diacritics, Fall 1984, trans. Georges Van Den 
Abbeele, pp. 4-14. 

4. See, for example, Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of 
the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979). 

5. Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality 
(New York: Basic Books, 1983). 

6. It should be noted that, for Lyotard, the choice of philosophy as a starting 
point is itself determined by a metapolitical commitment, namely, to antito¬ 
talitarianism. He assumes erroneously, in our view, that totalizing social 
and political theory necessarily eventuates in totalitarian societies. Thus, 
the “practical intent” that subtends Lyotard’s privileging of philosophy (and 
which is in turn attenuated by the latter) is anti-Marxism. Whether it should 
also be characterized as neoliberalism is a question too complicated to be 
explored here. 

7. See, for example, the essays in Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives 
on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science, 
ed. Sandra Harding and Merrill B. Hintikka (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 
1983). 

8. Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Bantam, 1970). 

9. Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women,” Toward an Anthropology of Women, 
ed. Rayna R. Reiter, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), p. 160. 

10. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, “Woman, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical 
Overview,” Woman, Culture, and Society, ed. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo 
and Louise Lamphere (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974), pp. 17- 
42. 

11. These and related problems were soon apparent to many of the domestic/ 
public theorists themselves. See Rosaldo’s self-criticism, “The Use and 
Abuse of Anthropology: Reflections on Feminism and Cross-cultural Under¬ 
standing,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 5, No. 
3, 1980, pp. 389-417. A more recent discussion, which points out the 
circularity of the theory, appears in Sylvia J. Yanagisako and Jane F. 
Collier, “Toward a Unified Analysis of Gender and Kinship,” Gender and 
Kinship: Essays Toward a Unified Analysis, ed. Jane Fishbume Collier and 
Sylvia Junko Yanagisako, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987). 

12. Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the 
Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978). 



Social Criticism without Philosophy / 37 


13. A similar ambiguity attends Chodorow’s discussion of the family. In re¬ 
sponse to critics who object that her psychoanalytic emphasis ignores social 
structures, Chodorow has rightly insisted that the family is itself a social 
structure, one frequently slighted in social explanations. Yet, she generally 
does not discuss families as historically specific social institutions whose 
specific relations with other institutions can be analyzed. Rather, she tends 
to invoke the family in a very abstract and general sense defined only as 
the locus of female mothering. 

14. Ann Ferguson and Nancy Folbre, “The Unhappy Marriage of Patriarchy 
and Capitalism,” Women and Revolution, ed. Lydia Sargent (Boston: South 
End Press, 1981), pp. 313-338; Nancy Hartsock, Money, Sex, and Power: 
Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism (New York: Longman, 1983); 
Catharine A. MacKinnon, “Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: 
An Agenda for Theory,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 
Vol. 7, No. 3, Spring 1982, pp. 515-544. 

15. Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s 
Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983). 

16 Cf. Ibid., p. 2. 

17. Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory (Trumans- 
burg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1983); Bell Hooks, Feminist Theory from 
Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984); Gloria Joseph, “The 
Incompatible Menage a Trois: Marxism, Feminism and Racism,” Women 
and Revolution, ed. Lydia Sargent (Boston: South End Press, 1981), pp. 
91-107; Audre Lord, “An Open Letter to Mary Daly,” This Bridge Called 
My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherrie Moraga and 
Gloria Anzaldua (Watertown, MA: Persephone Press, 1981), pp. 94-97; 
Maria C. Lugones and Elizabeth V. Spelman, “Have We Got a Theory 
for You! Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism and the Demand for the 
Woman’s Voice,” Hypatia, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 6, 
No. 6, 1983, pp. 578-581; Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality 
and Lesbian Existence,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 
Vol. 5, No. 4, Summer 1980, pp. 631-660; Elizabeth Spelman, “Theories 
of Race and Gender: The Erasure of Black Women,” Quest, Vol. 5, No. 
4, 1980/81, pp. 36-62. 

18. See, for example, Hel&ne Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith 
Cohen and Paula Cohen, New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and 
Isabelle de Courtivron (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), pp. 245-261; 
Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement, The Newly Born Woman, trans. 
Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986); Luce 
Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University 
Press, 1985) and This Sex Which Is Not One (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University 
Press, 1985); Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to 
Literature and Art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University 
Press, 1980) and “Women’s Time,” trans. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake, 
Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society Vol. 7, No. 1, Autumn 



38 / Nancy Fraser and Linda J. Nicholson 


1981, pp. 13-35. See also the critical discussions by Ann Rosalind Jones, 
“Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of 1’Ecriture Feminine,” The 
New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory, ed. 
Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), and Toril Moi, 
Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London: Methuen, 
1985). 



2 

Postmodernism and 
Gender Relations in 
Feminist Theory 

Jane Flax 


As the thought of the world, [philosophy) appears only when actuality is already there cut and 
dried after its process of formation has been completed. . . . When philosophy paints its grey in 
grey, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy’s grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated 
but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk. 

[G. W. F. Hegel, preface to Philosophy of Right] 


It seems increasingly probable that Western culture is in the middle of 
a fundamental transformation: A “shape of life” is growing old. In retro¬ 
spect, this transformation may be as radical (but as gradual) as the shift 
from a medieval to a modem society. Accordingly, this moment in the 
history of the West is pervaded by profound yet little comprehended 
change, uncertainty, and ambivalence. This transitional state makes cer¬ 
tain forms of thought possible and necessary, and it excludes others. It 
generates problems that some philosophies seem to acknowledge and 
confront better than others. 

I think there are currently three kinds of thinking that best present (and 
represent) our own time apprehended in thought: psychoanalysis, feminist 
theory, and postmodern philosophy. These ways of thinking reflect and 
are partially constituted by Enlightenment beliefs still prevalent in Western 
(especially American) culture. At the same time, they offer ideas and 
insights that are only possible because of the breakdown of Enlightenment 
beliefs under the cumulative pressure of historical events such as the 
invention of the atomic bomb, the Holocaust, and the war in Vietnam.' 

Each of these ways of thinking takes as its object of investigation at 
least one facet of what has become most problematic in our transitional 
state: how to understand and (re)constitute the self, gender, knowledge, 
social relations, and culture without resorting to linear, teleological, hier¬ 
archical, holistic, or binary ways of thinking and being. My focus here 
will be mainly on one of these modes of thinking: feminist theory. I will 


39 



40 / Jane Flax 


consider what it could be, and I will reflect upon the goals, logics, and 
problematics of feminist theorizing as it has been practiced in the past 
fifteen years in the West. I will also place such theorizing within the social 
and philosophical contexts of which it is both a part and a critique. 

I do not mean to claim that feminist theory is a unified or homogeneous 
discourse. Nonetheless, despite the lively and intense controversies among 
persons who identify themselves as practitioners concerning the subject 
matter, appropriate methodologies, and desirable outcome of feminist 
theorizing, it is possible to identify at least some of our underlying goals, 
purposes, and constituting objects. 

A fundamental goal of feminist theory is (and ought to be) to analyze 
gender relations: how gender relations are constituted and experienced 
and how we think or, equally important, do not think about them.' The 
study of gender relations includes, but is not limited to, what are often 
considered the distinctively feminist issues: the situation of women and 
the analysis of male domination. Feminist theory includes an (at least 
implicit) prescriptive element as well. By studying gender we hope to gain 
a critical distance on existing gender arrangements. This critical distance 
can help clear a space in which reevaluating and altering our existing 
gender arrangements may become more possible. 

Feminist theory by itself cannot clear such a space. Without feminist 
political actions, theories remain inadequate and ineffectual. However, I 
have come to believe that the further development of feminist theory (and 
hence a better understanding of gender) also depends upon locating our 
theorizing within and drawing more self-consciously upon the wider philo¬ 
sophical contents of which it is both a part and a critique. In other words, 
we need to think more about how we think about gender relations or any 
other social relations and about how other modes of thinking can help or 
hinder us in the development of our own discourses. In this paper, I will 
be moving back and forth between thinking about gender relations and 
thinking about how I am thinking—or could think—about them. 

Metatheory 

Feminist theory seems to me to belong within two, more inclusive, 
categories with which it has special affinity: the analysis of social relations 
and postmodern philosophy. 3 Gender relations enter into and are constit¬ 
uent elements in every aspect of human experience. In turn, the experience 
of gender relations for any person and the structure of gender as a social 
category are shaped by the interactions of gender relations and other social 
relations such as class and race. Gender relations thus have no fixed 
essence; they vary both within and over time. 

As a type of postmodern philosophy, feminist theory reveals and contri- 



Postmodernism and Gender Relations / 41 


butes to the growing uncertainty within Western intellectual circles about 
the appropriate grounding and methods for explaining and interpreting 
human experience. Contemporary feminists join other postmodern philos¬ 
ophers in raising important metatheoretical questions about the possible 
nature and status of theorizing itself. Given the increasingly fluid and 
confused status of Western self-understanding, it is not even clear what 
would constitute the basis for satisfactory answers to commonly agreed 
upon questions within feminist (or other forms of social) theory. 

Postmodern discourses are all deconstructive in that they seek to dis¬ 
tance us from and make us skeptical about beliefs concerning truth, 
knowledge, power, the self, and language that are often taken for granted 
within and serve as legitimation for contemporary Western culture. 

Postmodern philosophers seek to throw into radical doubt beliefs still 
prevalent in (especially American) culture but derived from the Enlighten¬ 
ment, such as the following: 

1. The existence of a stable, coherent self. Distinctive properties of 
this Enlightenment self include a form of reason capable of privi¬ 
leged insight into its own processes and into the “laws of nature.” 

2. Reason and its “science”—philosophy—can provide an objective, 
reliable, and universal foundation for knowledge. 

3. The knowledge acquired from the right use of reason will be 
“true”—for example, such knowledge will represent something 
real and unchanging (universal) about our minds and the structure 
of the natural world. 

4. Reason itself has transcendental and universal qualities. It exists 
independently of the seifs contingent existence (e.g., bodily, his¬ 
torical, and social experiences do not affect reason’s structure or 
its capacity to produce atemporal knowledge). 

5. There are complex connections between reason, autonomy, and 
freedom. All claims to truth and rightful authority are to be submit¬ 
ted to the tribunal of reason. Freedom consists of obedience to 
laws that conform to the necessary results of the right use of reason. 

(The rules that are right for me as a rational being will necessarily 
be right for all other such beings.) In obeying such laws, I am 
obeying my own best transhistorical part (reason) and hence am 
exercising my own autonomy and ratifying my existence as a free 
being. In such acts, 1 escape a determined or merely contigent 
existence. 

6. By grounding claims to authority in reason, the conflicts between 
truth, knowledge, and power can be overcome. Truth can serve 
power without distortion; in turn, by utilizing knowledge in the 
service of power, both freedom and progress will be assured. 



42 / Jane Flax 


Knowledge can be both neutral (e.g., grounded in universal reason, 
not particular “interests”) and also socially beneficial. 

7. Science, as the exemplar of the right use of reason, is also the 
paradigm for all true knowledge. Science is neutral in its methods 
and contents but socially beneficial in its results. Through its 
process of discovery we can utilize the laws of nature for the benefit 
of society. However, in order for science to progress, scientists 
must be free to follow the rules of reason rather than pander to the 
interests arising from outside rational discourse. 

8. Language is in some sense transparent. Just as the right use of 
reason can result in knowledge that represents the real, so, too, 
language is merely the medium in and through which such represen¬ 
tation occurs. There is a correspondence between word and thing 
(as between a correct truth claim and the real). Objects are not 
linguistically (or socially) constructed; they are merely made pres¬ 
ent to consciousness by naming and the right use of language. 


The relation of feminist theorizing to the postmodern project of decon¬ 
struction is necessarily ambivalent. Enlightenment philosophers such as 
Kant did not intend to include women within the population of those 
capable of attaining freedom from traditional forms of authority. Nonethe¬ 
less, it is not unreasonable for persons who have been defined as incapable 
of self-emancipation to insist that concepts such as the autonomy of reason, 
objective truth, and beneficial progress through scientific discovery ought 
to include and be applicable to the capacities and experiences of women 
as well as men. It is also appealing, for those who have been excluded, 
to believe that reason will triumph—that those who proclaim such ideas 
as objectivity will respond to rational arguments. If there is no objective 
basis for distinguishing between true and false beliefs, then it seems that 
power alone will determine the outcome of competing truth claims. This 
is a frightening prospect to those who lack (or are oppressed by) the power 
of others. 

Nevertheless, despite an understandable attraction to the (apparently) 
logical, orderly world of the Enlightenment, feminist theory more properly 
belongs in the terrain of postmodern philosophy. Feminist notions of the 
self, knowledge, and truth are too contradictory to those of the Enlighten¬ 
ment to be contained within its categories. The way(s) to feminist future(s) 
cannot lie in reviving or appropriating Enlightenment concepts of the 
person or knowledge. 4 

Feminist theorists enter into and echo postmodernist discourses as we 
have begun to deconstruct notions of reason, knowledge, or the self and 
to reveal the effects of the gender arrangements that lay beneath their 
neutral and universalizing facades. 5 Some feminist theorists, for example. 



Postmodernism and Gender Relations / 43 


have begun to sense that the motto of the Enlightenment, “sapere aude — 
‘have courage to use your own reason,’ ” 6 rests in part upon a deeply 
gender-rooted sense of self and self-deception. The notion that reason is 
divorced from “merely contingent” existence still predominates in contem¬ 
porary Western thought and now appears to mask the embeddedness and 
dependence of the self upon social relations, as well as the partiality and 
historical specificity of this self’s existence. What Kant’s self calls its 
“own” reason and the methods by which reason’s contents become present 
or self-evident, are no freer from empirical contingency that is the so- 
called phenomenal self. 7 

In fact, feminists, like other postmodernists, have begun to suspect that 
all such transcendental claims reflect and reify the experience of a few 
persons — mostly white. Western males. These transhistoric claims seem 
plausible to us in part because they reflect important aspects of the experi¬ 
ence of those who dominate our social world. 

A Feminist Problematic 

This excursus into metatheory has now returned us to the opening of 
my paper—that the fundamental purpose of feminist theory is to analyze 
how we think, or do not think, or avoid thinking about gender. Obviously, 
then, to understand the goals of feminist theory we must consider its 
central subject—gender. 

Here, however, we immediately plunge into a complicated and contro¬ 
versial morass. For among feminist theorists there is by no means consen¬ 
sus on such (apparently) elementary questions as: What is gender? How 
is it related to anatomical sexual differences? How are gender relations 
constituted and sustained (in one person’s lifetime and, more generally, 
as a social experience over time)? How do gender relations relate to other 
sorts of social relations such as class or race? Do gender relations have a 
history (or many)? What causes gender relations to change over time? 
What are the relationships between gender relations, sexuality, and a sense 
of individual identity? What are the relationships between heterosexuality, 
homosexuality, and gender relations? Are there only two genders? What 
are the relationships between forms of male dominance and gender rela¬ 
tions? Could/would gender relations wither away in egalitarian societies? 
Is there anything distinctively male or female in modes of thought and 
social relations? If there is, are these distinctions innate or socially consti¬ 
tuted? Are gendered distinctions socially useful or necessary? If so, what 
are the consequences for the feminist goal of attaining gender justice? 8 

Confronted with such a bewildering set of questions, it is easy to 
overlook the fact that a fundamental transformation in social theory has 
occurred. The single most important advance in feminist theory is that the 



44 / Jane Flax 


existence of gender relations has been problematized. Gender can no 
longer be treated as a simple, natural fact. The assumption that gender 
relations are natural arose from two coinciding circumstances: the unexam¬ 
ined identification and confusion of (anatomical) sexual differences with 
gender relations, and the absence of active feminist movements. I will 
return to a consideration of the connections between gender relations and 
biology later in this chapter. 

Contemporary feminist movements are in part rooted in transformations 
in social experience that challenge widely shared categories of social mean¬ 
ing and explanation. In the United States, such transformations include 
changes in the structure of the economy, the family, the place of the United 
States in the world system, the declining authority of previously powerful 
social institutions, and the emergence of political groups that have increas¬ 
ingly more divergent ideas and demands concerning justice, equality, social 
legislation, and the proper role of the state. In such a decentered and unstable 
universe it seems plausible to question one of the most natural facets of 
human existence—gender relations. On the other hand, such instability also 
makes old modes of social relations more attractive. The New Right and 
Ronald Reagan both call upon and reflect a desire to go back to a time when 
people and countries were in their “proper” place. The conflicts around 
gender arrangements become both the locus for and symbols of anxieties 
about all sorts of social-political ideas, only some of which are actually 
rooted primarily in gender relations. 9 

The coexistence of such social transformations and movements makes 
possible an increasingly radical and social, self-conscious questioning of 
previously unexamined facts and explanations. Thus, feminist theory, like 
all other forms of theory (including gender-biased ones), is dependent 
upon and reflects a certain set of social experiences. Whether, to what 
extent, and why feminist theory can be better than the gender-biased 
theories it critiques are questions that vex many writers. 10 In considering 
such questions, feminist theorists invariably enter the epistemological 
terrain shared in part with other postmodern philosophies. Hence, I wish 
to bracket these questions for now in order to consider more closely a 
fundamental category and object of investigation of feminist theory— 
gender relations. 

Thinking in Relations 

“Gender relations” is a category meant to capture a complex set of 
social processes. Gender, both as an analytic category and a social process, 
is relational. That is, gender relations are complex and unstable processes 
(or temporary totalities in the language of dialectics) constituted by and 
through interrelated parts. These parts are interdependent, that is, each 
part can have no meaning or existence without the others. 



Postmodernism and Gender Relations / 45 


Gender relations are differentiated and (so far) asymmetric divisions 
and attributions of human traits and capacities. Through gender relations 
two types of persons are created: man and woman. Man and woman are 
posited as exclusionary categories. One can be only one gender, never the 
other or both. The actual content of being a man or woman and the rigidity 
of the categories themselves are highly variable across cultures and time. 
Nevertheless, gender relations so far as we have been able to understand 
them have been (more or less) relations of domination. That is, gender 
relations have been (more) defined and (imperfectly) controlled by one of 
their interrelated aspects—the man. 

These relations of domination and the existence of gender relations 
themselves have been concealed in a variety of ways, including defining 
women as a “question” or the “sex” or the “other”" and men as the 
universal (or at least without gender). In a wide variety of cultures and 
discourses, men tend to be seen as free from or as not determined by 
gender relations. Thus, for example, academics do not explicitly study 
the psychology of men or men’s history. Male academics do not worry 
about how being men may distort their intellectual work, while women 
who study gender relations are considered suspect (of triviality, if not 
bias). Only recently have scholars begun to consider the possibility that 
there may be at least three histories in every culture—his, hers, and 
ours. His and ours are generally assumed to be equivalents, although in 
contemporary work there might be some recognition of the existence of 
that deviant — woman (e.g., women’s history). 12 However, it is still rare 
for scholars to search for the pervasive effects of gender relations on all 
aspects of a culture in the way that they feel obligated to investigate the 
impact of relations of power or the organization of production. 

To the extent that feminist discourse defines its problematic as 
“woman,” it, too, ironically privileges the man as unproblematic or ex¬ 
empted from determination by gender relations. From the perspective of 
social relations, men and women are both prisoners of gender, although 
in highly differentiated but interrelated ways. That men appear to be and 
(in many cases) are the wardens, or at least the trustees within a social 
whole, should not blind us to the extent to which they, too, are governed 
by the rules of gender. (This is not to deny that it matters a great deal— 
to individual men, to the women and children sometimes connected to 
them and to those concerned about justice—where men as well as women 
are distributed within social hierarchies.) 11 

Theorizing and Deconstruction 

The study of gender relations entails at least two levels of analysis: of 
gender as a thought construct or category that helps us to make sense out 



46 / Jane Flax 


of particular social worlds and histories, and of gender as a social relation 
that enters into and partially constitutes all other social relations and 
activities. As a practical social relation, gender can be understood only 
by close examination of the meanings of “male” and “female” and the 
consequences being assigned to one or the other gender within concrete 
social practices. 

Obviously, such meanings and practices will vary by culture, age, class, 
race, and time. We cannot presume a priori that in any particular culture 
there will be a single determinant or cause of gender relations, much less 
that we can tell beforehand what this cause (or these causes) might be. 
Feminist theorists have offered a variety of interesting casual explanations 
including the sex/gender system, the organization of production or sexual 
division of labor, child-rearing practices, and processes of signification or 
language. These all provide useful hypotheses for the concrete study of 
gender relations in particular societies, but each explanatory scheme also 
seems to me to be deeply flawed, inadequate, and overly deterministic. 

For example, Gayle Rubin locates the origin of gender systems in the 
“transformation of raw biological sex into gender.” 14 However, Rubin’s 
distinction between sex and gender rests in turn upon a series of oppositions 
that I find very problematic, including the opposition of “raw biological 
sexuality” and the social. This opposition reflects the idea predominant in 
the work of Freud, Lacan, and others that a person is driven by impulses 
and needs that are invariant and invariably asocial. This split between 
culture and natural sexuality may in fact be rooted in and reflect gender 
arrangements. 

As I have argued elsewhere, 15 Freud's drive theory reflects in part an 
unconscious motive: to deny and repress aspects of infantile experience 
which are relational (e.g., the child’s dependence upon and connectedness 
with its earliest caregiver, who is almost always a woman). Hence, in 
utilizing Freud’s concepts, we must pay attention to what they conceal as 
well as reveal, especially the unacknowledged influences of anxieties 
about gender on his supposedly gender-neutral concepts (such as drive 
theory). 

Socialist feminists locate the fundamental cause of gender arrangements 
in the organization of production or the sexual division of labor. However, 
this explanatory system also incorporates the historical and philosophical 
flaws of Marxist analysis. As Balbus convincingly argues, 16 Marxists 
(including socialist feminists) uncritically apply the categories Marx de¬ 
rived from his description of a particular form of the production of com¬ 
modities to all areas of human life at all historical periods. Socialist 
feminists replicate this privileging of production and the division of labor 
with the concomitant assumptions concerning the centrality of labor itself. 
Labor is still seen as the essence of history and being human. Such 



Postmodernism and Gender Relations / 47 


conceptions distort life in capitalist society and surely are not appropriate 
to all other cultures. 17 

An example of the problems that follow from this uncritical appropria¬ 
tion of Marxist concepts can be found in the attempts by socialist feminists 
to widen the concept of production to include most forms of human 
activity. These arguments avoid an essential question: “Why widen the 
concept of production instead of dislodging it or any other singularly 
central concept from such authoritative power? 

This question becomes more urgent when it appears that, despite the 
best efforts of socialist feminists, the Marxist concepts of labor and 
production invariably exclude or distort many kinds of activity, including 
those traditionally performed by women. Pregnancy and child rearing 
or relations between family members more generally cannot be compre¬ 
hended merely as “property relations in action.” 18 Sexuality cannot be 
understood as an exchange of physical energy, with a surplus (poten¬ 
tially) flowing to an exploiter. 1 ’ Such concepts also ignore or obscure 
the existence and activities of other persons as well—children—for 
whom at least a part of their formative experiences has nothing to do 
with production. 

However, the structure of child-rearing practices also cannot serve as 
the root of gender relations. Among the many problems with this approach 
is that it cannot explain why women have the primary responsibility for 
child rearing; it can explain only some of the consequences of this fact. 
In other words, the child-rearing practices taken as causal already presup¬ 
pose the very social relations we are trying to understand: a gender-based 
division of human activities and hence the existence of socially constructed 
sets of gender arrangements and the (peculiar and in need of explanation) 
salience of gender itself. 

The emphasis that (especially) French feminists place on the centrality 
of language (e.g., chains of signification, signs, and symbols) to the 
construction of gender also seems problematic. 50 A problem with thinking 
about (or only in terms of) texts, signs, or signification is that they tend 
to take on a life of their own or become the world, as the claim that nothing 
exists outside of a text; everything is a comment upon or a displacement 
of another text, as if the model human activity is literary criticism (or 
writing). 

Such an approach obscures the projection of its own activity onto the 
world and denies the existence of the variety of concrete social practices 
that enter into and are reflected in the constitution of language itself (e.g., 
ways of life constitute language and texts as much as language constitutes 
ways of life). This lack of attention to concrete social relations (including 
the distribution of power) results, as in Lacan’s work, in the obscuring of 
relations of domination. Such relations (including gender arrangements) 



48 / Jane Flax 


then tend to acquire an aura of inevitability and become equated with 
language or culture (the “law of the father”) as such. 

Much of French (including feminist) writing also seems to assume a 
radical (even ontological rather than socially constructed) disjunction 
between sign/mind/male/world and body/nature/female. 2 ' The prescrip¬ 
tion of some French feminists for the recovery (or reconstitution?) of 
female experience—“writing from the body”—seems incoherent given 
this sort of (Cartesian) disjunction. Since the body is presocial and prelin- 
guistic, what could it say? 

All of these social practices posited as explanations for gender arrange¬ 
ments may be more or less important, interrelated, or themselves partially 
constituted in and through gender relations depending upon context. As 
in any form of social analysis, the study of gender relations will necessarily 
reflect the social practices it attempts to understand. There cannot, nor 
should we expect there to be, a feminist equivalent to (a falsely universaliz¬ 
ing) Marxism; indeed, the epistemologies of feminism undercut all such 
claims, including feminist ones. 22 

It is on the metatheoretical level that postmodern philosophies of knowl¬ 
edge can contribute to a more accurate self-understanding of the nature of 
our theorizing. We cannot simultaneously claim (1) that the mind, the 
self, and knowledge are socially constituted and that what we can know 
depends upon our social practices and contexts and (2) that feminist theory 
can uncover the truth of the whole once and for all. Such an absolute truth 
(e.g., the explanation for all gender arrangements at all times is X) would 
require the existence of an Archimedes point outside of the whole and 
beyond our embeddedness in it from which we could see (and represent) 
the whole. What we see and report would also have to be untransformed 
by the activities of perception and of reporting our vision in language. 
The object seen (social whole or gender arrangement) would have to be 
apprehended by an empty (ahistoric) mind and perfectly transcribed by/ 
into a transparent language. The possibility of each of these conditions 
existing has been rendered extremely doubtful by the deconstructions of 
postmodern philosophers. 

Furthermore, the work of Foucault (among others) should sensitize us 
to the interconnections between knowledge claims (especially to the claim 
of absolute or neutral knowledge) and power. Our own search for an 
Archimedes point may conceal and obscure our entanglement in an epis- 
teme in which truth claims may take only certain forms and not others. 23 
Any episteme requires the suppression of discourses that threaten to differ 
with or undermine the authority of the dominant one. Hence, within 
feminist theory a search for a defining theme of the whole or a feminist 
viewpoint may require the suppression of the important and discomforting 
voices of persons with experiences unlike our own. The suppression of 



Postmodernism and Gender Relations / 49 


these voices seems to be a necessary condition for the (apparent) authority, 
coherence, and universality of our own. 

Thus, the very search for a root or cause of gender relations (or more 
narrowly, male domination) may partially reflect a mode of thinking that 
is itself grounded in particular forms of gender (and/or other) relations in 
which domination is present. Perhaps reality can have “a” structure only 
from the falsely universalizing perspective of the dominant group. That 
is, only to the extent that one person or group can dominate the whole 
will reality appear to be governed by one set of rules or be constituted by 
one privileged set of social relations. Criteria of theory construction such 
as parsimony or simplicity may be attained only by the suppression or 
denial of the experiences of the other(s). 

The Natural Barrier 

Thus, in order for gender relations to be useful as a category of social 
analysis we must be as socially and self-critical as possible about the 
meanings usually attributed to those relations and the ways we think about 
them. Otherwise, we run the risk of replicating the very social relations 
we are attempting to understand. We have to be able to investigate both 
the social and philosophical barriers to our comprehension of gender 
relations. 

One important barrier to our comprehension of gender relations has 
been the difficulty of understanding the relationship between gender 
and sex. In this context, sex means the anatomical differences between 
male and female. Historically (at least since Aristotle), these anatomical 
differences have been assigned to the class of natural facts or biology. 
In turn, biology has been equated with the pre- or nonsocial. Gender 
relations then become conceptualized as if they are constituted by two 
opposite terms or distinct types of being — man and woman. Since 
man and woman seem to be opposites or fundamentally distinct types 
of being, gender cannot be relational. If gender is as natural and as 
intrinsically a part of us as the genitals we are bom with, it follows 
that it would be foolish (or even harmful) to attempt either to change 
gender arrangements or not to take them into account as a delimitation 
on human activities. 

Even though a major focus of feminist theory has been to denaturalize 
gender, feminists as well as nonfeminists seem to have trouble thinking 
through the meanings we assign to and the uses we make of the concept 
“natural.” 24 What, after all, is the natural in the context of the human 
world? :? There are many aspects of our embodiedness or biology that we 
might see as given limits to human action which Western medicine and 
science do not hesitate to challenge. For example, few Westerners would 



50 / Jane Flax 


refuse to be vaccinated against diseases that our bodies are naturally 
susceptible to, although in some cultures such actions would be seen as 
violating the natural order. The tendency of Western science is to disen¬ 
chant the natural world. 26 More and more the natural ceases to exist as the 
opposite of the cultural or social. Nature becomes the object and product 
of human action; it loses its independent existence. Ironically, the more 
such disenchantment proceeds, the more humans seem to need something 
that remains outside our powers of transformation. Until recently, one 
such exempt area seemed to be anatomical differences between males and 
females. 27 Thus, in order to save nature (from ourselves) many people in 
the contemporary West equate sex/biology/nature/gender and oppose these 
to the cultural/social/human. Concepts of gender then become complex 
metaphors for ambivalences about human action in, on, and as part of the 
natural world. 

But the use of gender as a metaphor for such ambivalences blocks 
further investigation of them. For the social articulation of these equations 
is not really in the form I stated above but, rather, sex/biology/nature/ 
woman : cultural/social/man. In the contemporary West, women become 
the last refuge from not only the “heartless” world but also an increasingly 
mechanized and fabricated one as well. 28 What remains masked in these 
modes of thought is the possibility that our concepts of biology and nature 
are rooted in social relations; they do not merely reflect the given structure 
of reality itself. 

Thus, in order to understand gender as a social relation, feminist theo¬ 
rists need to deconstruct further the meanings we attach to biology/sex/ 
gender/nature. This process of deconstruction is far from complete and 
certainly is not easy. Initially, some feminists thought we could merely 
separate the terms sex and gender. As we became more sensitive to 
the social histories of concepts, it became clear that such an (apparent) 
disjunction, while politically necessary, rested upon problematic and cul¬ 
ture-specific oppositions, for example, the one between nature and culture 
or body and mind. As some feminists began to rethink these oppositions, 
new questions emerged: Does anatomy (body) have no relation to mind? 
What difference does it make in the constitution of my social experiences 
that I have a specifically female body? 

Despite the increasing complexity of our questions, most feminists 
would still insist that gender relations are not (or are not only) equivalent 
to or a consequence of anatomy. Everyone will agree that there are 
anatomical differences between men and women. These anatomical differ¬ 
ences seem to be primarily located in or are the consequence of the 
differentiated contributions men and woman make to a common biological 
necessity—the physical reproduction of our species. 

However, the mere existence of such anatomical differentiation is a 



Postmodernism and Gender Relations / 51 


descriptive fact, one of many observations we might make about the 
physical characteristics of humans. Part of the problem in deconstruction 
of the meaning of biology/sex/gender/nature is that sex/gender has been 
one of the few areas in which (usually female) embodiment can be dis¬ 
cussed at all in (nonscientific) Western discourses. There are many other 
aspects of our embodiedness that seem equally remarkable and interesting, 
for example, the incredible complexity of the structure and functioning of 
our brains, the extreme and relatively prolonged physical helplessness of 
the human neonate as compared to that of other (even related) species, or 
the fact that every one of us will die. 

It is also the case that physically male and female humans resemble 
each other in many more ways than we differ. Our similarities are even 
more striking if we compare humans to, say, toads or trees. So why ought 
the anatomical differences between male and female humans assume such 
significance in our sense of our selves as persons? Why ought such 
complex human social meanings and structures be based on or justified 
by a relatively narrow range of anatomical differences? 

One possible answer to these questions is that the anatomical 
differences between males and females are connected to and are partially 
a consequence of one of the most important functions of the species— 
its physical reproduction. Thus, we might argue, because reproduction 
is such an important aspect of our species life, characteristics associated 
with it will be much more salient to us than, say, hair color or height. 

Another possible answer to these questions might be that in order 
for humans physically to reproduce the species, we have to have sexual 
intercourse. Our anatomical differences make possible (and necessary 
for physical reproduction) a certain fitting together of distinctively male 
and female organs. For some humans this “fitting together” is also 
highly desirable and pleasurable. Hence, our anatomical differences 
seem to be inextricably connected to (and in some sense even causative 
of) sexuality. 

Thus, there seems to be a complex of relations that have associated, 
given meanings: penis or clitoris, vagina, and breasts (read distinctively 
male or female bodies), sexuality (read reproduction—birth and babies), 
sense of self as a distinct, differentiated gender—as either (and only) male 
or female person (read gender relations as a natural exclusionary category). 
That is, we believe there are only two types of humans, and each of us 
can be only one of them. 

A problem with all these apparently obvious associations is that they 
may assume precisely what requires explanation—that is, gender rela¬ 
tions. We live in a world in which gender is a constituting social relation 
and in which gender is also a relation of domination. Therefore, both 
men's and women’s understanding of anatomy, biology, embodiedness. 



52 / Jane Flax 


sexuality, and reproduction is partially rooted in, reflects, and must justify 
(or challenge) preexisting gender relations. In turn, the existence of gender 
relations helps us to order and understand the facts of human existence. 
In other words, gender can become a metaphor for biology just as biology 
can become a metaphor for gender. 

Prisoners of Gender 

The apparent connections between gender relations and such important 
aspects of human existence as birth, reproduction, and sexuality make 
possible both a conflating of the natural and the social and an overly 
radical distinction between the two. In modem Western culture and some¬ 
times even in feminist theories, the words natural and social become 
conflated in our understanding of “woman.” In nonfeminist and some 
feminist writings about women, a radical disjunction is frequently made 
between the natural and the social. Women often stand for/symbolize the 
body, “difference,” the concrete. These qualities are also said by some 
feminist as well as nonfeminist writers to suffuse/define the activities most 
associated with women: nurturing, mothering, taking care of and being in 
relation with others, preserving. 29 Women’s minds are also often seen as 
reflecting the qualities of our stereotypically female activities and bodies. 
Even feminists sometimes say women reason and write differently and 
have different interests and motives than men. 30 Men are said to have 
more interest in utilizing the power of abstract reason (mind), to want 
mastery over nature (including bodies), and to be aggressive and milita¬ 
ristic. 

The reemergence of such claims even among some feminists needs 
further analysis. Is this the beginning of a genuine transvaluation of values 
or a retreat into traditional gendered ways of understanding the world? In 
our attempts to correct arbitrary (and gendered) distinctions, feminists 
often end up reproducing them. Feminist discourse is full of contradictory 
and irreconcilable conceptions of the nature of our social relations, of men 
and women and the worth and character of stereotypically masculine and 
feminine activities. The positing of these conceptions such that only one 
perspective can be correct (or properly feminist) reveals, among other 
things, the embeddedness of feminist theory in the very social processes 
we are trying to critique and our need for more systematic and self- 
conscious theoretical practice. 

As feminist theorizing is presently practiced, we seem to lose sight of 
the possibility that each of our conceptions of a practice (e.g., mothering) 
may capture an aspect of a very complex and contradictory set of social 
relations. Confronted with complex and changing relations, we try to 
reduce these to simple, unified, and undifferentiated wholes. We search 



Postmodernism and Gender Relations / 53 


for closure, or the right answer, or the motor of the history of male 
domination. The complexity of our questions and the variety of the ap¬ 
proaches to them are taken by some feminists as well as nonfeminists as 
signs of weakness or failure to meet the strictures of preexisting theories 
rather than as symptoms of the permeability and pervasiveness of gender 
relations and the need for new sorts of theorizing. 

Some of the reductive moves 1 have in mind include the constricting of 
embodiedness to a glorification of the distinctively female aspects of our 
anatomy. 11 This reduction precludes considering the many other ways in 
which we experience our embodiedness (e.g., nonsexual pleasures, the 
processes of aging or pain). It also replicates the equating of women with 
the body—as if men did not have bodies also! Alternatively, there is a 
tendency simply to deny or neglect the meaningfulness or significance of 
any bodily experience within both women’s and men’s lives or to reduce 
it to a subset of relations of production (or reproduction). 

Within feminist discourse, women sometimes seem to become the sole 
bearers of both embodiedness and difference. Thus, we see arguments for 
the necessity to preserve a gender-based division of labor as our last 
protection from a state power that is depersonalizing and atomizing. 12 In 
such arguments the family is posited as an intimate, affective realm of 
natural relations—of kinship ties, primarily between mothers, children, 
and female kin—and it is discussed in opposition to the impersonal realms 
of the state and work (the worlds of men). Alternatively, feminists some¬ 
times simply deny that there are any significant differences between 
women and men and that insofar as such differences exist, women should 
become more like men (or engage in men’s activities). Or, the family is 
understood only as the site of gender struggle and the reproduction of 
persons—a miniature political economy with its own division of labor, 
source of surplus (women’s labor), and product (children and workers). 11 
The complex fantasies and conflicting wishes and experiences women 
associate with family and home often remain unexpressed and unacknowl¬ 
edged. Lacking such self-analysis, feminists find it difficult to recognize 
some of the sources of our differences or to accept that we do not necessar¬ 
ily share the same past or share needs in the present. 14 

Female sexuality is sometimes reduced to an expression of male domi¬ 
nance, as when Catherine MacKinnon claims “gender socialization is the 
process through which women come to identify themselves as sexual 
beings, as beings that exist for men.” 15 Among many other problems, such 
a definition leaves unexplained how women could ever feel lust for other 
women and the wide variety of other sensual experiences women claim 
to have—for example, in masturbation, breast feeding, or playing with 
children. Alternatively, the essence of female sexuality is said to be rooted 
in the quasi-biological primal bonds between mother and daughter. 16 



54 / Jane Flax 


For some theorists, our fantasy and internal worlds have expression 
only in symbols, not in actual social relations. For example. Iris Young 
claims that gender differentiation as a category refers only to “ideas, 
symbols, and forms of consciousness.” 37 In this view, fantasy, our inner 
worlds, and sexuality may structure intimate relations between women 
and men at home, but they are rarely seen as also entering into and shaping 
the structure of work and the state. Thus, feminist theory recreates its 
own version of the public/private split. Alternatively, as in some radical 
feminist accounts, innate male drives, especially aggression and the need 
to dominate others are posited as the motor that drives the substance and 
teleology of history. 18 

Feminist theorists have delineated many of the ways in which women’s 
consciousness is shaped by mothering, but we often still see fathering as 
somehow extrinsic to men’s and children’s consciousness. 39 The impor¬ 
tance of modes of child rearing to women’s status and to women’s and 
men’s sense of self is emphasized in feminist theory; yet we still write 
social theory in which everyone is presumed to be an adult. For example, 
in two recent collections of feminist theory focusing on mothering and the 
family, 40 there is almost no discussion of children as human beings or 
mothering as a relation between persons. The modal “person” in feminist 
theory still appears to be a self-sufficient individual adult. 

These difficulties in thinking have social as well as philosophical roots, 
including the existence of relations of domination and the psychological 
consequences of our current modes of child rearing. In order to sustain 
domination, the interrelation and interdependence of one group with an¬ 
other must be denied. Connections can be traced only so far before they 
begin to be politically dangerous. For example, few white feminists have 
explored how our understandings of gender relations and theory are par¬ 
tially constituted in and through the experiences of living in a culture in 
which asymmetric race relations are a central organizing principle of 
society. 41 

Furthermore, just as our current gender arrangements create men who 
have difficulties in acknowledging relations between people and experi¬ 
ences, they produce women who have difficulties in acknowledging differ¬ 
ences within relations. In either gender, these social relations produce a 
disposition to treat experience as all of one sort or another and to be 
intolerant of differences, ambiguity, and conflict. 

The enterprise of feminist theory is fraught with temptations and pitfalls. 
Insofar as women have been part of all societies, our thinking cannot be 
free from culture-bound modes of self-understanding. We as well as 
men internalize the dominant gender’s conceptions of masculinity and 
femininity. Unless we see gender as a social relation rather than as an 
opposition of inherently different beings, we will not be able to identify 



Postmodernism and Gender Relations / 55 


the varieties and limitations of different women’s (or men’s) powers and 
oppressions within particular societies. Feminist theorists are faced with 
a fourfold task. We need to (1) articulate feminist viewpoints of/within 
the social worlds in which we live; (2) think about how we are affected 
by these worlds; (3) consider the ways in which how we think about them 
may be implicated in existing power/knowledge relationships; and (4) 
imagine ways in which these worlds ought to and can be transformed. 

Since within contemporary Western societies gender relations have 
been ones of domination, feminist theories should have a compensatory 
as well as a critical aspect. That is, we need to recover and explore the 
aspects of social relations that have been suppressed, unarticulated, or 
denied within dominant (male) viewpoints. We need to recover and write 
the histories of women and our activities into the accounts and stories that 
cultures tell about themselves. Yet, we also need to think about how so- 
called women’s activities are partially constituted by and through their 
location within the web of social relations that make up any society. That 
is, we need to know how these activities are affected but also how they 
effect, enable, or compensate for the consequences of men’s activities, as 
well as their implication in class or race relations. 

There should also be a transvaluation of values—a rethinking of our 
ideas about what is humanly excellent, worthy of praise, or moral. In such 
a transvaluation, we need to be careful not to assert merely the superiority 
of the opposite. For example, sometimes feminist theorists tend to oppose 
autonomy to being-in-relations. Such an opposition does not account 
for adult forms of being-in-relations that can be claustrophobic without 
autonomy—an autonomy that, without being-in-relations can easily de¬ 
generate into mastery. Our upbringing as women in this culture often 
encourages us to deny the many subtle forms of aggression that intimate 
relations with others can evoke and entail. For example, much of the 
discussion of mothering and the distinctively female tends to avoid discuss¬ 
ing women’s anger and aggression—how we internalize them and express 
them, for example, in relation to children or our own internal selves. 42 
Perhaps women are not any less aggressive than men; we may just express 
our aggression in different, culturally sanctioned (and partially disguised 
or denied) ways. 

Since we live in a society in which men have more power than women, 
it makes sense to assume that what is considered to be more worthy of 
praise may be those qualities associated with men. As feminists, we have 
the right to suspect that even praise of the female may be (at least in part) 
motivated by a wish to keep women in a restricted (and restrictive) place. 
Indeed, we need to search into all aspects of a society (the feminist critique 
included) for the expressions and consequences of relations of domination. 
We should insist that all such relations are social, that is, they are not the 



56 / Jane Flax 


result of the differentiated possession of natural and unequal properties 
among types of persons. 

However, in insisting upon the existence and power of such relations of 
domination, we should avoid seeing women/ourselves as totally innocent, 
passive beings. Such a view prevents us from seeing the areas of life in 
which women have had an effect, in which we are less determined by the 
will of the other(s), and in which some of us have and do exert power 
over others (e.g., the differential privileges of race, class, sexual prefer¬ 
ence, age, or location in the world system). 

Any feminist standpoint will necessarily be partial. Thinking about 
women may illuminate some aspects of a society that have been previously 
suppressed within the dominant view. But none of us can speak for 
“woman” because no such person exists except within a specific set of 
(already gendered) relations—to “man” and to many concrete and different 
women. 

Indeed, the notion of a feminist standpoint that is truer than previous 
(male) ones seems to rest upon many problematic and unexamined assump¬ 
tions. These include an optimistic belief that people act rationally in their 
own interests and that reality has a structure that perfect reason (once 
perfected) can discover. Both of these assumptions in turn depend upon 
an uncritical appropriation of the Enlightenment ideas discussed earlier. 
Furthermore, the notion of such a standpoint also assumes that the op¬ 
pressed are not in fundamental ways damaged by their social experience. 
On the contrary, this position assumes that the oppressed have a privileged 
(and not just different) relation and ability to comprehend a reality that is 
out there waiting for our representation. It also presupposes gendered 
social relations in which there is a category of beings who are fundamen¬ 
tally like each other by virtue of their sex—that is, it assumes the otherness 
men assign to women. Such a standpoint also assumes that women, unlike 
men, can be free of determination from their own participation in relations 
of domination such as those rooted in the social relations of race, class, 
or homophobia. 41 

I believe, on the contrary, that there is no force or reality outside our 
social relations and activity (e.g., history, reason, progress, science, some 
transcendental essence) that will rescue us from partiality and differences. 
Our lives and alliances belong with those who seek to further decenter the 
world—although we should reserve the right to be suspicious of their 
motives and visions as well. 44 Feminist theories, like other forms of 
postmodernism, should encourage us to tolerate and interpret ambiva¬ 
lence, ambiguity, and multiplicity as well as to expose the roots of our 
needs for imposing order and structure no matter how arbitrary and oppres¬ 
sive these needs may be. 

If we do our work well, reality will appear even more unstable, complex. 



Postmodernism and Gender Relations / 57 


and disorderly than it does now. In this sense, perhaps Freud was right 

when he declared that women are the enemies of civilization. 45 

Notes 

1. For a more extended discussion of these claims, see my forthcoming book. 
Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in 
the Contemporary V/est (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 
forthcoming 1990). 

2. Representative examples of feminist theories include Home Girls: A Black 
Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith (New York: Kitchen Table: Women 
of Color Press, 1983); This Bridge Called My Back, ed. Cherrie Moraga 
and Gloria Anzaldua (Watertown, MA: Persephone Press, 1981); Elizabeth 
Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland, The Voyage In: Fictions 
of Female Development (Hanover, NH, and London: University Press of 
New England, 1983); Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist 
Feminism, ed. Zillah R. Eisenstein (New York: Monthly Review Press, 
1979); Feminism and Materialism, ed. Annette Kuhn and Ann Marie 
Wolpe, (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978); Hunter College Women’s 
Studies Collective, Women’s Realities, Women's Choices (New York: Ox¬ 
ford University Press, 1983); New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks 
and Isabelle de Courtivron, (New York: Schocken Books, 1981); Mother¬ 
ing: Essays in Feminist Theory, ed. Joyce Trebilcot, (Totowa, NJ: Rowman 
& Allanheld, 1984); Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender 
and Sexuality, ed. Sherry B. Ortner and Harriet Whitehead, (New York: 
Cambridge University Press, 1981); Nancy C. M. Hartsock, Money, Sex, 
and Power (New York: Longman, Inc., 1983); The Powers of Desire: 
The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon 
Thompson, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983); Discovering Real¬ 
ity: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, 
and Philosophy of Science, ed. Sandra Harding and Merill B. Hintikka, 
(Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1983); Carol C. Gould, Beyond Domi¬ 
nation: New Perspectives on Women and Philosophy (Totowa, NJ: Rowman 
& Allanheld, 1984); Isaac D. Balbus, Marxism and Domination (Princeton, 
NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982); Alison Jaggar, Feminist Politics and 
Human Nature (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983). 

3. Sources for and practitioners of postmodernism include Friedrich Nietzsche, 
On the Genealogy of Morals (New York: Vintage, 1969) and Beyond Good 
and Evil (New York: Vintage, 1966); Jacques Derrida, L’ecriture et la 
difference (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1967); Michel Foucault, Language, 
Counter-Memory, Practice (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977); 
Jacques Lacan, Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis (Baltimore: Johns 
Hopkins University Press, 1968) and The Four Fundamental Concepts of 
Psychoanalysis (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1973); Richard Rorty, 
Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University 
Press, 1979); Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (New York: Schocken, 



58 / Jane Flax 


1975); Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (New York: Harper & Row, 
1972) and Philosophical Investigations (New York: Macmillan Publishing 
Co., 1970); Julia Kristeva, “Women’s Time,” Signs: Journal of Women in 
Culture and Society, Vol. 7, No. 11, Autumn 1981, pp. 13—35; and Jean- 
Fran^ois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (Minneapolis; University of 
Minnesota Press, 1984). 

4. In “The Instability of the Analytical Categories of Feminist Theory,” Signs, 
Vol. 11, No. 4, Summer 1986, pp. 645-664, Sandra Harding discusses the 
ambivalent attraction of feminist theorizing to both sorts of discourse. She 
insists that feminist theorists should live with the ambivalence and retain 
both discourses for political and philosophical reasons. However, I think 
her argument rests in part on a too uncritical appropriation of a key Enlight¬ 
enment equation of knowing, naming, and emancipation. 

5. Examples of such work include Alice A. Jardine, Gynesis: Configurations 
of Woman and Modernity (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985); 
Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and 
Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” Socialist Review, No. 80, 1983, pp. 65- 
107; Kathy E. Ferguson, The Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy (Philadel¬ 
phia: Temple University Press, 1984); and Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the 
Other Woman (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985). 

6. Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?” in Foundations of the Metaphys¬ 
ics of Morals (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1959), p. 85. 

7. For critiques of the mind (reason)/body split, see Naomi Scheman, “Individ¬ 
ualism and the Objects of Psychology,” in Harding and Hintikka, eds. (see 
Note no. 2); Susan Bordo, “The Cartesian Masculinization of Thought,” 
Signs Vol. 11, No. 3, Spring 1986, pp. 439-456; Nancy C. M. Hartsock, 
“The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Femi¬ 
nist Historical Materialism,” in Harding and Hintikka, eds.; Caroline Whit- 
beck, “Afterword to the ‘Maternal Instinct,’ ” in Joyce Trebilcot, ed. (see 
Note no. 2); and Dorothy Smith, “A Sociology for Women,” The Prison 
of Sex: Essays in the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. J. Sherman and E.T. 
Beck (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979). 

8. These questions are suggested by Judith Stacey, “The New Conservative 
Feminism,” Feminist Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3, Fall 1983, pp. 559-583, and 
Nancy Chodorow, “Gender, Relation, and Difference in Psychoanalytic 
Perspective,” The Future of Difference, ed. Hester Eisenstein and Alice 
Jardine (1980, reprint, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 
1985). 

9. On the appeal of New Right ideology to women, see Judith Stacey (Note 
no. 8). 

10. Harding discusses these problems in detail. See Note no. 4. See also Sandra 
Harding, “Is Gender a Variable in Conceptions of Rationality? A Survey 
of Issues,” in Carol C. Gould, (Note no. 2), and “Why Has the Sex/Gender 
Become Visible Only Now?” in Harding and Hintikka, eds., and Alison 
Jaggar (Note no. 2), pp. 353-394. Since within modem Western cultures 



Postmodernism and Gender Relations / 59 


science is the model for knowledge that is simultaneously neutral/objective 
yet socially useful/powerful (or destructive), much epistemological inquiry 
has focused on the nature and structure of science. Compare Hilary Rose, 
“Hand, Brain, and Heart: A Feminist Epistemology for the Natural Sci¬ 
ences,” Signs Vol. 9, No. 1, Autumn 1983, pp. 73-90; and Helen Longino 
and Ruth Doell, “Body, Bias, and Behavior: A Comparative Analysis of 
Reasoning in Two Areas of Biological Science, Signs Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter 
1983, pp. 206-227. 

11. For example, the Marxist treatments of the “woman question” from Engels 
onward, or existentialist, or Lacanian treatment of woman as the “other" 
to man. 

12. On this point, see Joan Kelly, “The Doubled Vision of Feminist Theory," 
Feminist Studies Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer 1979, pp. 216-227; and also 
Judith Stacey and Barrie Thome, “The Missing Feminist Revolution in 
Sociology,” Social Problems Vol. 32, No. 4, April 1985, pp. 301-316. 

13. Compare Phyllis Marynick Palmer, “White Women/Black Women: The 
Dualism of Female Identity and Experience in the United States,” Feminist 
Studies Vol. 9, No. 11, Spring 1983, pp. 151-170. 

14. This is Gayle Rubin’s claim in “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 
‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. 
Rayna Rapp Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975). 

15. I develop this argument in “Psychoanalysis as Deconstruction and Myth: 
On Gender, Narcissism and Modernity’s Discontents,” in The Crisis of 
Modernity: Recent Theories of Culture in the United States and West 
Germany, ed. Kurt Shell (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986). 

16. See Balbus (Note no. 2), Chapter 1, for a further development of these 
arguments. Despite Balbus’s critique of Marx, he still seems to be under 
Marx’s spell on a metatheoretical level when he tries to locate a root of all 
domination—child-rearing practices. I have also discussed the inadequacy 
of Marxist theories in “Do Feminists Need Marxism?” Building Feminist 
Theory, ed. Quest Staff (New York: Longman, Inc., 1981), and “The 
Family in Contemporary Feminist Thought: A Critical Review,” ed. Jean 
Bethke Elshtain, The Family in Political Thought (Amherst, MA: Univer¬ 
sity of Massachusetts Press, 1982), pp. 232-239. 

17. Marx may replicate rather than deconstruct the capitalist mentality in his 
emphasis on the centrality of production. Compare Albert O. Hirschman, 
The Passions and the Interests (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 
1977) for a very interesting discussion of the historical emergence and 
construction of a specifically capitalist mentality. 

18. Annette Kuhn, “Structure of Patriarchy and Capital in the Family,” in Kuhn 
and Wolpe, eds. (Note no. 2), p. 53. 

19. Ann Ferguson, “Conceiving Motherhood and Sexuality: A Feminist Materi¬ 
alist Approach,” in Joyce Trebilcot, ed. (Note no. 2), pp. 156-158. 

20. The theories of French feminists vary, of course. 1 am focusing on a 



60 / Jane Flax 


predominant and influential approach within the variations. For further 
discussion of French feminisms, see the essays in Signs, Vol. 7, No. 1, 
Autumn 1981, and Feminist Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer 1981. 

21. Domna Stanton, in “Difference on Trial: A Critique of the Maternal Meta¬ 
phor in Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva,” The Poetics of Gender, ed. Nancy 
Miller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), discusses the onto¬ 
logical and essentialist aspects of these writers’ work. 

22. Catherine MacKinnon, in “Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An 
Agenda for Theory,” Signs, Vol. 7, No. 3, Spring 1982, pp. 515-544, 
seems to miss this basic point when she makes claims such as: “The defining 
theme of the whole is the male pursuit of control over women’s sexuality — 
men not as individuals nor as biological beings, but as a gender group 
characterized by maleness as socially constructed, of which this pursuit is 
definitive” (p. 532). On the problem of the Archimedes point, see Myra 
Jehlen, “Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism,” Signs, Vol. 
6, No. 4, Summer 1981, pp. 575-601. 

23. Compare Michel Foucault, Power!Knowledge, ed. Colin Gordon (New 
York: Random House, 1981). 

24. But see the work of Evelyn Fox Keller on the gendered character of our 
views of the natural world, especially her essays “Gender and Science,” in 
Harding and Hintikka, eds. (Note no. 2), and “Cognitive Repression in 
Physics American Journal of Physics, Vol. 47, 1979, pp. 718-721. 

25. In Public Man, Private Woman, Jean Bethke Elshtain provides an instruc¬ 
tive instance of how allegedly natural properties (of infants) can be used to 
limit what a “reflective feminist” ought to think. In Elshtain’s recent writings 
it becomes (once again) the responsibility of women to rescue children from 
an otherwise instrumental and uncaring world. Elshtain evidently believes 
that psychoanalytical theory is exempt from the context-dependent herme¬ 
neutics she believes characterize all other kinds of knowledge about social 
relations. She utilizes psychoanalytic theory as a warrant for absolute or 
foundational claims about the nature of “real human needs” or “the most 
basic human relationships” and then bases political conclusions on these 
“natural” facts. See Jean Bethke Elshtain, Public Man, Private Woman 
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 314, 331. 

26. See Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” From Max Weber, ed. H.H. 
Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 
and Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment 
(New York: Herder & Herder, 1972). 

27. I say “until recently” because of developments in medicine such as sex 
change operations and new methods of conception and fertilization of 
embryos. 

28. As in the work of Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World (New 
York: Basic Books, 1977). Lasch’s work is basically a repetition of the 
ideas stated earlier by members of the Frankfurt School, especially Hork- 



Postmodernism and Gender Relations / 61 


heimer and Adorno. See, for example, the essay “The Family” in Aspects 
of Sociology, Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (Boston: Beacon Press, 
1972). 

29. Compare Sara Ruddick’s essays, “Maternal Thinking” and “Preservative 
Love and Military Destruction: Some Reflections on Mothering and Peace,” 
both in Joyce Trebilcot, ed. (Note no. 2). 

30. On women’s “difference,” see the essays in Eisenstein and Jardine, eds. 
(Note no. 8), and Marks and de Courtivron (Note no. 2); also Carol Gilligan, 
In a Different Voice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 
and Donna Stanton (Note no. 21). 

31. As in, for example, Helene Cixous, “Sorties,” The Newly Born Woman, 
ed. Hdl&ne Cixous and Catherine Clement (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University 
Press, 1986). 

32. See, for instance, Jean Bethke Elshtain (Note no. 25), and Jean Bethke 
Elshtain, ed. (Note no. 16), pp. 7-30. 

33. This seems to be the basic approach characteristic of socialist-feminist 
discussions of the family. See, for example, the essays by Ann Ferguson 
(Note no. 19) and Annette Kuhn (Note no. 18). 

34. See, for example, Barbara Smith’s discussion of the meanings of home to 
her in the introduction to Home Girls (Note no. 2). Smith’s definition 
contrasts strongly with the confinement and exploitation some middle-class 
white women associate with home. See, for example, Michele Barrett and 
Mary McIntosh, The Anti-Social Family (London: Verso, 1983), and Heidi 
I. Hartmann, “The Family as the Locus of Gender, Class, and Political 
Struggle: The Example of Housework,” Signs Vol. 6, No. 3, Spring 1981, 
pp. 366-394. 

35. Catherine MacKinnon (Note no. 22), p. 531. 

36. This seems to be Adrienne Rich’s argument in “Compulsory Heterosexual¬ 
ity and Lesbian Existence,” Signs Vol. 5, No. 4, Summer 1980, pp. 631- 
660. See also Donna Stanton (Note no. 21) on this point. 

37. Iris Young, “Is Male Gender Identity the Cause of Male Domination?” in 
Joyce Trebilcot, ed. (Note no. 2), p. 140. In this essay, Young replicates 
the split Juliet Mitchell posits in Psychoanalysis and Feminism (New York: 
Pantheon Books, 1974) between kinship/gender/superstructure and class/ 
production/base. 

38. As in Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Bantam Books, 
1970), and Catherine MacKinnon (Note no. 22). 

39. On this point, see Nancy Chodorow and Susan Contratto, “The Fantasy of 
the Perfect Mother,” Rethinking the Family, ed. Barrie Thome and Marilyn 
Yalom (New York: Longman, Inc., 1983) 

40. Joyce Trebilcot, ed. (Note no. 2), and Thome and Yalom, eds. (Note no. 
39). 

41. But see the dialogues between Gloria I. Joseph and Jill Lewis, Common 



62 / Jane Flax 


Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives (New York: 
Doubleday & Co., 1981), and Marie L. Lugones and Elizabeth V. Spelman, 
“Have We Got a Theory For You,” Women and Values , ed. Marilyn Pearsall 
(Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1986), and Phyllis Marynick 
Palmer (Note no. 13). Women of color have been insisting on this point 
for a long time. Compare the essays in Barbara Smith, ed. (Note no. 2), 
and Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, eds. (Note no. 2). See also Audre 
Lorde, Sister Outsider (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984). 

42. Compare the descriptions of mothering in Joyce Trebilcot, ed. (Note no. 
2), especially the essays by Whitbeck and Ruddick. 

43. For contrary arguments, see Jaggar (Note no. 10), and also Nancy C.M. 
Hartsock, “The Feminist Standpoint” (Note no. 7). 

44. 1 discuss the gender biases and inadequacies of postmodern philosophy 
in Thinking Fragments (Note no. 1). See also Naomi Schor, “Dreaming 
Dissymmetry: Barthes, Foucault, and Sexual Difference,” Men in Femi¬ 
nism , ed. Alice Jardine and Paul Smith (New York: Methuen, 1987). 

45. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: W. W. Norton 
& Co., 1961), pp. 50-51. 



3 


Dilemmas of Difference: 
Feminism, Modernity, and 
Postmodernism 

Christine Di Stefano 


Whether we choose to characterize the contemporary age as modem or 
postmodern, most of us are prepared to admit or to defend the notion 
that few aspects of the human condition are basic in the ontological or 
transhistorical sense. While a few social theorists have been more willing 
than others to take seriously some of the enduring aspects of human 
experience which issue from the existentially imposed limits, require¬ 
ments, and possibilities of the body and psyche, most subscribe to modern¬ 
ist notions which stress history, cultural specificity and variability, and 
the essentially conventional nature of social and political life. Whether 
for better or for worse, humanity inhabits a sociopolitical environment of 
its own (yet often unwitting) making. This has been the theoretical starting 
point for theorists such as Rousseau, Marx, and de Beauvoir; each begins 
with the assumption that it is a humanly authored history which holds the 
key to understanding the fate of modem peoples. Postmodernism has taken 
things one step further by subjecting the tenets and truisms of secular human¬ 
ism to even further scrutiny. In applying and extending the modernist insis¬ 
tence on the essentially conventional nature of sociopolitical arrangements 
and their (increasingly important) representations, postmodernism renders 
the conventional into the arbitrary and promotes a politics and theory of dis¬ 
belief toward the language of rights, rationality, interests, and autonomy as 


Earlier versions and portions of this paper were delivered to the Northwest Women’s 
Studies Association Conference, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA, October 
17 and 18, 1986. and to the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, 
the Palmer House, Chicago, September 3-6, 1987. 1 am grateful to the various panel 
organizers, participants, and audiences for helpful criticism and encouragement. Special 
thanks to Tom Dalglish, Susan Hekman, and Lisa Orlando for notably generous and 
detailed critical responses. 


63 



64 / Christine Di Stefano 


presumed characteristics of a humanistic self that was thought to provide 
the legitimizing foundation for modem social life. 

Contemporary Western feminism is firmly, if ambivalently, located in 
the modernist ethos, which made possible the feminist identification and 
critique of gender. Although it was a long time in the making. Western 
feminism was finally able to deconstruct the presumably fixed and univer¬ 
sal association between femininity and the biology of reproduction. Nancy 
Chodorow’s (1978) re-definition of mothering as an institutionalized social 
practice with its own mode of historical reproduction is, along with Simone 
de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, a quintessential exemplar of modernist 
feminist inquiry and critique. The concept of gender has made it possible 
for feminists to simultaneously explain and delegitimize the presumed 
homology between biological and social sex differences. At the same 
time, however, gender (rather than sex) differences have emerged as 
highly significant, salient features which do more to divide and distinguish 
men and women from each other than to make them parts of some larger, 
complementary, humanistic whole. In other words, the feminist analysis 
of gender has undone one version of a presumably basic difference, 
thought to be rooted in nature, and come up with another, albeit more 
debatably basic than the previous one. 

Gender Differences: How Basic Are They? 

Research on gender suggests, among other things, that men and women 
in contemporary Western societies are differently constituted as modem 
human subjects; that they inhabit, experience, and construct the sociopolit¬ 
ical world in different, often incommensurable ways; that we are just 
beginning to perceive and to understand the heretofore suppressed femi¬ 
nine dimensions of public and private life; and that what has passed as a 
gender neutral vocabulary of reason, morality, cognitive development, 
autonomy, justice, history, theory, progress, and enlightenment is imbued 
with masculine meaning (Balbus, 1982; Belenky et al., 1986; Bernard, 
1981; Bordo, 1986; Chodorow, 1978; Dinnerstein, 1976; Di Stefano, 
1984; Flax, 1983; Fraser, 1985b; Gilligan, 1982; Hartsock, 1983; Hirsch- 
man, 1987; Irigaray, 1985; Keller, 1985; Lloyd, 1986; Miller, 1976; 
O’Brien, 1981). Cross-cultural research on gender reveals several impor¬ 
tant findings that may be summed up in the following way: On the one 
hand, gender seems to be a nearly universal feature of all human societies. 
On the other hand, the actual contents of gender definitions have an 
astonishingly wide-ranging cross-cultural variability, and it is not always 
the case that “difference” translates into “unequal.”' The good news, for 
feminists at any rate, is that these findings have helped to destabilize 
domestic notions of difference that construct and impinge on women’s 



Dilemmas of Difference / 65 


and men’s life chances. The bad news is gender seems to be a stubbornly 
ubiquitous feature of culture. In short, it is both more and less of an 
obstacle to achieving parity between the sexes than many of us had 
previously imagined. 

Questions such as “How basic are gender differences?” emerge out 
of engagement with this literature and serve as significant grounds of 
contestation within contemporary Western feminism. At issue are a linked 
set of theoretical and strategic questions concerning the enterprise of 
feminist theory and the kinds of political demands and activities that 
feminists should pursue on behalf of women. Those who believe that 
gender differences are significantly basic (in the modernist sense that 
they are strong conventions which help to constitute men and women as 
incommensurably different subjects) are more likely to pursue a politics 
of difference which can speak to women’s alienated (with respect to 
dominant, male-stream culture) but also potentially critical identity and 
be employed on behalf of a reconstituted, nonmasculinist social order. 
Those who do not see gender as basic in this deep and constitutive 
sense are more likely to argue for a politics of equality based on some 
presumption of eventual, attainable, and desirable androgyny; that is, on 
the basis of an identity which transcends gender difference. 

How basic, then, are gender differences? If, by the word basic, we 
mean inescapable or overdetermined, they are basic indeed, inhabiting 
and structuring the arenas of culture, social structure, and subjectivity to 
produce a world that is simultaneously gender divided (masculine versus 
feminine) and gender dominated (masculine). Construed in this way, 
gender differences pose a radical challenge to the humanist Enlightenment 
legacy which has come under increasing feminist scrutiny as a masculinist 
legacy. But recently, gender itself has come under critical scrutiny from 
new intellectual and political quarters, which charge that gender and its 
cohort of core assumptions and terms are guilty of the same totalization 
with which humanism was previously charged. On this view, gender is 
implicated in a disastrous and oppressive fiction, the fiction of “woman,” 
which runs roughshod over multiple differences among and within women 
who are ill-served by a conception of gender as basic. For some writers, 
gender is no more and perhaps not even as basic as poverty, class, 
ethnicity, race, sexual identity, and age, in the lives of women who feel 
less divided from men as a group than, for example, from white or 
bourgeois or Anglo or heterosexual men and women (Hooks, 1984; Jor¬ 
dan, 1981; Lorde, 1984). The argument here is that a notion of gender as 
basic merely serves to reify, rather than to critically contest, transform, 
and escape the imposed myth of difference, while it ignores other crucial 
and as yet subjugated arenas of difference. 

Is a conception of gender as basic just another, slightly more qualified. 



66 / Christine Di Stefano 


version of humanism, a totalizing fiction which should be deconstructed 
and opposed in the name of a difference that serves no theoretically 
unifying master? Or can and should it be deployed as part of the ongoing 
challenge to masculinist hegemony? Which theoretical tack best serves 
the contemporary needs of women in Western society? 

In posing these questions, I have deliberately departed from the empiri¬ 
cal territory that often houses the issue of how basic gender differences 
are. While it is certainly the case that there are some well-established 
empirical parameters for the answer, I want to argue that this question 
carries an irreducible theoretical and normative core, one which is not 
susceptible to strictly empirical resolution. In asking how basic gender 
differences are, we are also asking how basic we want them to be for 
particular purposes and ends. This is really what the feminist debate about 
gender these days is all about. It could not be otherwise, since gender 
itself is a product of and a contribution to modernist discourse; it is about 
conventional forms of meaning, practice, and representation and not at all 
about foundations, whether natural or metaphysical. 

One way of posing the “how basic” question is to explore how various 
conceptions of gender difference that range across a continuum of less to 
more basic commit us to particular theoretical and political agendas. This 
chapter will pursue this tack with reference to the current modernist/ 
postmodernist controversy, which carries important implications for femi¬ 
nist gender theory. At issue in each theoretical debate is the question of 
our relationship to and assessment of the enlightened modernist legacy. 2 

Debates about gender differences are, I believe, embedded in three 
strategic forms for posing the relationship between contemporary Western 
feminism and the Enlightenment legacy of humanistic rationalism: (1) 
feminist rationalism, (2) feminine anti-rationalism, and (3) feminist post¬ 
rationalism. (Humanism or modernism could be substituted for rationalism 
in this particular scheme.) Each position, as I will try to show, utilizes a 
particular notion of gender difference and generates specific insights and 
problems as viewed from the vantage points of the other two. Feminist 
rationalism, which uses a minimalist notion of gender difference, enables 
a critique of sexism as an irrational and hence illegitimate set of beliefs 
and practices. Feminine anti-rationalism, committed to a stronger version 
of gender difference, levels its protest against the rational/masculine : 
irrational/feminine construct and attempts to revalorize, rather than to 
overcome, traditional feminine experience, and to reconceive the meaning 
of rational in a manner that will take account of women’s traditional 
activities. Feminist postrationalism rejects the terms and strategies of the 
previous two and argues that feminism must initiate a thoroughgoing break 
with the rationalist paradigm by simultaneously disengaging from the 
assumptions of generic humanism on the one hand and feminism construed 



Dilemmas of Difference / 67 


as a theory and politics for the subject “woman” on the other. In this third 
approach, gender is treated with greater care than it is in the first, but with 
more suspicion than in the second. Three texts will be especially helpful 
here and central to the following discussion: Carol McMillan’s Women, 
Reason and Nature, Genevieve Lloyd’s The Man of Reason, and Sandra 
Harding’s The Science Question in Feminism. As with any attempt to 
schematize a complex debate, these three positions are necessarily artificial 
and overly simplistic. Nevertheless, I believe that the scheme works well 
enough to help us identify prevailing tendencies and currents. Hopefully, 
whatever clarity is produced within this schematic frame will not have been 
purchased at the expense of important nuances and hybrid or alternative 
positions. 

Dilemmas of Gender and Rationality 

The rationalist position takes the Enlightenment view of rationality and 
humanism at its word and as its starting point. On this view, common 
respect is due to all people because they are rational. The human capacity 
for rationality is precisely what distinguishes us from the realm of nature 
which, not incidentally, is not accorded respectful treatment. Women have 
been unfairly excluded from the respect which they are due as human 
beings on the basis of an insidious assumption that they are less rational 
and more natural than men. “Difference” has been used to legitimize the 
unequal treatment of women and therefore must be repudiated theoretically 
and practically in order for women to assume their rightful place in society 
as the nondifferentiated equals of men. ' 

Anti-rationalism comes face to face with the denigration of feminized 
nature within rationalism and attempts to revalorize the feminine in the 
light of this denigration. Significantly, the terms of this valorization are 
the terms of the excluded and denigrated “other”: Anti-rationalism cele¬ 
brates the designated and feminized irrational, invoking a strong notion 
of difference against the gender-neutral pretensions of a rationalist culture 
that opposes itself to nature, the body, natural contingency, and intuition. 
This project sees itself as a disloyal opposition and envisions a social order 
that would better accomodate women in their feminized difference rather 
than as imperfect copies of the Everyman. 4 

Finally, postrationalism refuses the linguistic and conceptual currency 
of rationalism altogether. Eschewing a position either within or outside 
of the rationalist framework, for or against difference, postrationalism 
attempts to transcend the discourse of rationalism and to offer new, 
decentered, and admittedly partial or fractured narratives of opposition. 
Here, difference is simultaneously upheld and deconstructed: A prolifera¬ 
tion of differences is counterposed to the singular difference of gender. 



68 / Christine Di Stefano 


and suspicion is cast on difference as an artifact of the very system 
of domination to which it is ostensibly opposed. While this strategy is 
theoretically appealing, it is also complex and unnerving, inhabiting a 
constantly shifting ground of emerging and dissolving differences. 5 

A very interesting example of feminine anti-rationalism is Carol McMil¬ 
lan’s Women, Reason and Nature: Some Philosophical Problems With 
Feminism, which has been justly criticized as an anti-feminist text. A 
crucial flaw in the analysis is her thin version of feminist theory, which 
she believes is adequately captured by (her version of) the work of Simone 
de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone. Her consequent indictment of femi¬ 
nism as a co-conspirator in the rationalist project which devalues women 
and the feminine in the name of a masculinist rationalism is, therefore, 
weak. Nevertheless, her critical reading of rationalism is instructive in 
several respects. 

McMillan takes aim at the classical Cartesian version of reason and 
morality, which has been housed within a dichotomous structure that is 
all too familiar to us: It begins with the subject-object dyad and culminates 
in the opposition between reason and emotion-intuition. Within this frame¬ 
work, women and the feminine have carried the brunt of guilt by associa¬ 
tion with the irrational. McMillan’s quarrel with feminism is that it uncriti¬ 
cally accepts the rationalist division between (feminine) intuitive and 
(masculine) rational knowledge. This is manifested in the various attempts 
of feminists to break the link between women, nature, and irrationality 
rather than to contest the dichotomous construct within which these links 
are housed. According to McMillan, “what feminists need to acknowledge 
is that the whole rationalist enterprise was able to get off the ground only 
because a spurious contrast was made between rationality and intuition, 
between reason and emotion” (pp. 55-56). This contrast nourished the 
idea that “reasoning is the peculiar prerogative of masculine pursuits, 
and therefore of the male sex” (p. 56). Hence, “the idea of sexists that 
women cannot reason and the idea of feminists that they do not 
reason because they have never been given the necessary educational 
opportunities rest on the same misconceptions” (p. 56). McMillan’s 
argument is a cry for greater sensitivity to the interpretive nuances of 
complex feminine lives. On this view, the everyday life practices of 
women, particularly in their reproductive and child-rearing roles, merit 
reevaluation as complex, rational, thoughtful, and important activities. 
“If the critical fact of womanhood ... is that women bear children 
and men do not, then surely a new sense of the worth of women should 
involve, above all, a revaluation of the maternal role” (p. 102). To 
criticize such lives and the sexual division of labor according to which 
they are organized is to apply a foreign (i.e., masculine, rationalist) 
standard of evaluation. Feminism, then, is judged guilty in the following 



Dilemmas of Difference / 69 


terms: “Far from being either radical or revolutionary [feminism] reveals 
itself to be perhaps the most articulate expression of the philosophy of 
a society in which human life is continually trivialized and cheapened 
for the sake of extraneous, abstract aims” (p. 78). 

For McMillan, the feminist demand for control over reproduction, for 
reproductive rights, plays into and out of the rationalist conception of a 
human agency pitted over and against the natural realm of necessity. 
Rather than reading biology as a problem to be mastered and therefore 
overcome, she proposes that we treat it as a condition to be embraced 
“more fully, and with more justice.” As for the sexual division of labor 
within the household, “we have to look for ways in which value can be 
placed upon femininity without resorting to money or ‘masculine’ activi¬ 
ties as our frame of reference” (pp. 204-105). In other words, neither 
wages for housework nor paid labor outside the home qualify as solutions 
to the problem of the underevaluation of women’s work. For this problem, 
according to McMillan, is ultimately related to rationalist conceptions of 
what counts in the human scheme of things. Capitulating to the ethos of 
this conception will not serve the interests of women. 

We need to stop assuming, argues McMillan, in line with the voluntarist 
account of human agency and rationality, that social restrictions such as 
sex roles are necessarily bad, that is, unjustified infringements on free 
choice and self-determination. Even though they are conventions, these 
cultural artifacts are not merely arbitrary impositions. Rather, they seek 
to make sense out of the givens of life; in this case, they seek to make sense 
out of the ontological givens of reproductive sex differences. According to 
McMillan, the restriction of women to the domestic sphere is a violation 
of their rights only //domestic activities are devalued. This is a strange 
way of putting it, since we might want to ask whether the restriction of 
women to the domestic sphere would have existed in the first place, if 
such activities had not already been devalued. That is, does devaluing 
give way to the restriction or does the restriction give way to the devaluing? 
Obviously, there is no way to answer this question concerning the origins 
of a denigrated and separate female sphere with any satisfactory sense of 
closure. McMillan’s answer to this unarticulated question of origins lo¬ 
cates the devaluation of the feminine in a philosophical framework (ratio¬ 
nalism) rather than in a visceral world of power/knowledge relations. 
Hence, an appreciation of the political fact that conventions preclude, 
even as they construct, certain choices never enters into her discussion of 
women’s estate. The very notion of choice is, for McMillan, implicated 
in the rationalist understanding of agency as a manipulative power exer¬ 
cised over events and brute necessity. McMillan’s repudiation of choice 
is refracted in her criticism of the feminist call for reproductive freedom. 
Abortion is viewed as a denial and destruction of life. The technology of 



70 / Christine Di Stefano 


birth control is criticized (in many ways, rightly so) for its damaging 
effects on female bodies and sexuality. 

McMillan’s analysis is similarly marred by a heterosexist conception 
of sexuality. Presumably, it is only members of the two opposite sexes 
who interact sexually. A good part of the reason for this oversight is 
related to her argument that all conventions seek to make sense out of real 
or basic facts of life. In her insistence that social conventions such as 
motherhood are not merely arbitrary inventions, she goes to the other 
extreme and claims that they all aim to make sense out of a nature that is 
sexually dimorphous and devalued by rationalism. There is no sense here 
that conventions often take on complex lives and histories of their own, 
which often bear little resemblance to their functional roots. Equally 
problematic, we find no appreciation of the fact that conventions often 
help to produce and constitute the very facts and problems which they 
ostensibly help us to make sense of or which they stand as solutions to. 
Among feminists, a favorite example of this phenomenon is the genealogy 
of the “woman question.’’ We can add others: The convention of heterosex¬ 
uality is implicated in the “problem’’ of homosexuality; the nineteenth- 
century “problem” of the spinster was effectively the progeny of the 
nuclear family from which she was excluded. 

In her eagerness to problematize the inherited patterns of rationalist 
thought which undermine and devalue the feminine, McMillan manages 
to deproblematize femininity altogether. By insisting that femininity has 
its own appropriate criteria of rationality, agency, motivation, morality, 
and worth, McMillan would have us invoke these so as to valorize feminine 
experience. Unfortunately, her anti-rationalist critique, potentially useful 
to feminists, particularly those attempting to develop a theory and politics 
of eco-feminism (King, 1981), ends up confirming the very fears that have 
kept so many of us within rationalism for lack of a viable alternative. The 
view from here suggests that rationalism, along with its thin version 
of gender differences, provides a safer foothold than the paradoxically 
conformist anti-rationalist alternative. Thankfully, our choices do not 
reduce to these two. 

Genevieve Lloyd’s The Man of Reason offers a more sophisticated and 
feminist treatment of gender differences and masculine rationality. In this 
critical review of the Western philosophical tradition, Lloyd explores the 
ideal of Reason as it has been formulated by the “great” philosophers. Her 
conclusion is that the ideal of a sexually neutral Reason is radically 
misconceived. Like McMillan, Lloyd sees that “rationality has been con¬ 
ceived as transcendence of the feminine” and that “women cannot easily 
be accomodated into a cultural ideal which has defined itself in opposition 
to the feminine” (p. 104). In contrast to McMillan, however, Lloyd makes 
the additional and critically crucial observation that “the ‘feminine’ itself 



Dilemmas of Difference / 71 


has been partly constituted by its occurence within this structure” (p. 105). 
Within Lloyd’s scheme, the “different but equal” approach advocated by 
McMillan seriously overestimates its own radicalness vis a vis the dis¬ 
course it would challenge. For, “the idea that women have their own 
distinctive kind of intellectual or moral character [and worth] has itself 
been partly formed within the philosophical tradition to which it may now 
appear to be a reaction” (p. 105). The effort to valorize the feminine as 
an essentially different kind of rationality and agency unrecognized by 
rationalism “will occur in a space already prepared for it by the intellectual 
tradition it seeks to reject” (p. 105). 

Lloyd’s analysis, then, urges us to approach the various exclusions of 
the feminine from Reason as a less than straightforward discrimination, 
for Western philosophy has permitted or required feminine traits (as it 
defines them) to be simultaneously preserved and downgraded. “Making 
good the lacks in male consciousness, providing it with a necessary 
complementation by the ‘feminine, ’ is a large part of what the suppression, 
and the correlative constitution, of ‘womankind’ has been all about” (p. 
105). The important difference here between McMillan and Lloyd is that 
whereas McMillan thinks that ideals of Reason have merely reflected 
sexual difference, Lloyd asserts that they have also helped to constitute 
the terms and content of that difference. The feminine, then, has also been 
constituted through its exclusion. If many of the critical strengths of 
female/feminine difference derive from that exclusion, these strengths 
will survive only so long as they are not used to assert a positive rival 
norm. 

The temptation to do so, however, is enormous. This is not simply a 
matter of fighting fire with fire, a strategic counterweight to the devaluation 
and oppression of things female and feminine. Rather, the critical acuity 
and insight produced by the voice of the other provides a visceral, tangible 
sense of alternatives to the one-dimensional rationalist horror show. The 
poet Carolyn Kizer has put it this way: “Witnessing: woman’s role and 
art. What would we—all of us—lose if women succeeded in entering the 
arena as the equals of men, at the expense of that witnessing? ... the 
view from the sidelines has produced a precious hoard” (Kizer, 1986, p. 
11). In her “Declaration of an Independence I Would Just as Soon Not 
Have,” June Jordan raises similar concerns about an assimilative feminism 
whose image of liberation is cast in the dominant white masculine mode: 

Will we liberate ourselves so that the caring for children, the teaching, 
the loving, healing, person-oriented values that have always distin¬ 
guished us will be revered and honored at least commensurate to the 
honors accorded bank managers, lieutenant colonels, and the executive 
corporate elite? Or will we liberate ourselves so that we can militantly 



72 / Christine Di Stefano 


abandon those attributes and functions, so that we can despise our own 
warmth and generosity even as men have done, for ages? (p.120) 

What, then, are we to do with gendered difference? A strict rationalist 
response dictates its denial and elimination in the service of a universal 
humanism. The anti-rationalist response seems to call for its reification. 
Lloyd reminds us of two important things here: While difference cannot 
be denied, because rationalist sameness already presupposes a particular 
gendered version of itself, the outsider witness (the feminized Other) is 
not innocent. She is also a product of rationalist, masculinist discourse. 

Where does all of this leave us with respect to the modem, rationalist 
legacy? McMillan’s solution—a feminized model of agency and rational¬ 
ity on the model of the mother in labor—is no solution here. But neither, 
argues Lloyd, is a thoroughgoing repudiation of the categories of reason, 
truth, and logic: “The claim that Reason is male need not at all involve 
sexual relativism about truth, or any suggestion that principles of logical 
thought valid for men do not hold also for female reasoners” (p. 109). 
Lloyd believes that “philosophers can take seriously feminist dissatisfac¬ 
tion with the maleness of Reason without repudiating either Reason or 
Philosophy” (p. 109). But does Lloyd protest a bit too loudly? Has she 
perhaps underestimated the implications of her analysis? What is “Reason” 
or “Philosophy,” stripped of its androcentric content and associations, 
which, as Lloyd has demonstrated, is ubiquitous throughout the history 
of Western philosophical discourse? Can these terms even be thought 
without the residues of that content? Unfortunately, Lloyd does not pursue 
these questions. However, a parallel set of questions concerning the theory 
and practice of science has been raised by Sandra Harding in The Science 
Question in Feminism. 

But first, a brief review of the issues thus far covered is in order. The 
political counterpart to rationalism commits us to equality and to the 
elimination of gender differences, but this equality, as McMillan has 
suggested, is constituted within a set of terms that disparage things female 
or feminine. Lloyd would add that these terms have also created, and not 
merely reflected, the female and the feminine. Anti-rationalism attempts 
to revalorize the feminine, with the nasty effect of failing to criticize it. 
Hence, anti-rationalism tends to slide into anti-feminism. The dilemma 
seems to be this: Give up rationalism and its cohort assumption of human 
sameness and we surrender an existing vocabulary of and claim to Enlight¬ 
enment humanism and rationalism; embrace it and we endorse the modern¬ 
ist misogynous sensibility as we lose a critical vantage point on that 
sensibility. The choice seems to be one between a politics and epistemol¬ 
ogy of identity (sameness) or difference. Yet, as Lloyd reminds us, such 
a choice is only a pseudo-choice, since it comes to us already framed as 



Dilemmas of Difference / 73 


such, prepackaged by a gendered narrative of us and them. On this view, 
difference appeals to mistakenly essentialized identities as much as identity 
does. We seem, then, to be stuck in a vicious discursive cycle. The only 
way out (if such exists) is provided by a strategy that may be termed 
postrationalist or postmodernist. While this strategy solves many of the 
problems entailed and engendered by the rationalist and anti-rationalist 
agendas, it generates a formidable one of its own. I call this problem the 
“postfeminist tendency,” an inclination which is fostered by a refusal to 
systematically document or privilege any particular form of difference or 
identity against the hegemonic mainstream. 

Postmodernism/Postfeminism? 

According to Sandra Harding, the feminist challenge to Western cul¬ 
ture’s intellectual and social frameworks inevitably reaches to the very 
foundations of our cultural-epistemological systems. Like McMillan and 
Lloyd, she argues that “what we took to be humanly inclusive problemat¬ 
ics, concepts, theories, objective methodologies, and transcendental truths 
are in fact far less than that. Indeed, these products of thought bear the 
mark of their collective and individual creators, and the creators in turn 
have been distinctively marked as to gender, class, race, and culture” (p. 
15). In Harding’s account, the feminist challenge is even more threatening 
to the social and epistemological order than McMillan and Lloyd seem to 
think, for the conspiratorial ubiquity of gender and (scientific) rationality 
dovetail to promote the suspicion that an appropriate model of rational¬ 
ity—of methodical knowledge-seeking—has yet to be specified, much 
less realized in practice. On this view, the inherited vocabularies of the 
feminine and of Reason, of difference and identity, are equally suspicious. 
There is insufficient space for critical recuperation in either enterprise. 

Harding argues that feminist critiques of modem science have taken 
three forms: feminist empiricism, feminist standpoint theories, and, more 
recently, feminist postmodernism. Feminist empiricism corresponds quite 
neatly with rationalism. (It is also the epistemological counterpart to 
liberalism and liberal-feminism). It identifies sexism and androcentrism 
as social biases which are correctable by stricter adherence to the existing 
norms of scientific inquiry. Hence, sexist science is portrayed as bad 
science rather than science as usual. But feminist empiricism unwittingly 
deconstructs its terms of endearment to rationalism by revealing that sexist 
bias is an internal rather than accidental or secondary feature of scientific 
research procedures. The epistemological paradoxes of feminist empiri¬ 
cism are addressed by the feminist standpoint approach, which is willing 
to acknowledge the intimate gendered dimensions of rational inquiry. 
Here, the gender specific and differentiated perspective of women is 



74 / Christine Di Stefano 


advanced as a preferable grounding for inquiry—preferable because the 
experience and perspective of women as the excluded and exploited other 
is judged to be more inclusive and critically coherent than that of the 
masculine group (Hartsock, 1983, pp. 231-251). While the feminist 
standpoint approach is willing to embrace an open relationship between 
knowledge and gendered interests, it still shares—with feminist empiri¬ 
cism—an urge for generalizable, universal knowledge. Minimally, such 
knowledge should be universal for the group “women.” Maximally, it 
should be able to subsume the partial and perverse understandings of 
masculine inquiry within its horizon of explanation and interpretation. As 
Harding points out, feminist standpoint theories are vulnerable to the 
suspicion that “women” do not exist as a sufficiently coherent social 
subject. If differences between women—differences secured on the basis 
of race, class, sexuality, culture, and ethnicity—are sufficient to override 
feminine commonalities of experience and interest, then a feminist stand¬ 
point, like the feminist movement (Hooks, 1984), is a potentially oppres¬ 
sive and totalizing fiction, just as humanism has been. More disturbing 
still is this question: “Is the feminist standpoint project still too firmly 
grounded in the historically disastrous alliance between knowledge and 
power characteristic of the modem epoch? Is it too firmly rooted in a 
problematic politics of essentialized identities?” (p. 27). Harding’s ques¬ 
tion suggests that feminist standpoint theories, like feminine standpoint 
theories, are stuck in an overly literal loyalty to the reified account of 
gender and rationality bequeathed by modem rationalist philosophy and 
culture. 

For Harding, feminist postmodernism goes even further to challenge 
the assumptions of feminist empiricism and feminist standpoint theories. 
While postmodernism opposes “the dangerous fiction of the naturalized, 
essentialized, uniquely ‘human’ (read ‘manly’) and ... the distortion and 
exploitation perpetrated on behalf of this fiction” (p. 26), it embraces 
a skepticism regarding generalizable and universal claims of any sort, 
including those of feminism. Furthermore, it cultivates a suspicion toward 
any overly coherent theory. Feminist postmodernism, then, is “an episte¬ 
mology that justifies knowledge claims only insofar as they arise from 
enthusiastic violation of the founding taboos of Western humanism” (p. 
193). The political counterpart to this epistemology of “permanent partial¬ 
ity” is a “politics of solidarity” of “fragmented selves and oppositional 
consciousness” (pp. 195-196), enacting “a refusal of the delusion of return 
to an ‘original unity’ ” (p. 193). This original unity designates the fiction of 
wholeness applied to the self, to the group, to the ideal of a comprehensive 
politics or theory, to the epistemological problem of the subject-object 
relationship, and to the political vision of communal (totalitarian) utopia. 
“Why not,” asks Harding: 



Dilemmas of Difference / 75 


seek a political and epistemological solidarity in our oppositions to the 
fiction of the naturalized, essentialized, uniquely “human” and to the 
distortions, perversions, exploitations, and subjugations perpetrated on 
behalf of this fiction? Why not explore the new possibilities opened up 
by recognition of the permanent partiality of the feminist point of view? 
(p. 193) 


For many reasons, this is an attractive reformulation of a feminist 
politics and theory of difference. The affinities between contemporary 
feminism and postmodern theory have been noticed by others as well 
(Ferguson, 1984; Flax, 1986; Fraser, 1985a; Fraser and Nicholson, 1988; 
Hekman, 1987; Meese, 1986; Owens, 1983). What they share, according 
to Jane Flax, is “a profound skepticism regarding universal (or universaliz¬ 
ing) claims about the existence, nature and powers of reason, progress, 
science, language and the ‘subject / self ” (Flax, 1986, p. 3). If gender 
has been the original impetus for this skepticism, then it may also be the 
case that it is time to give up the comforts and closures of the concept for 
a more radical and decentered attention to multiple differences, none of 
which merit theoretical privileging over others. 

But from other feminist quarters, the postmodern call to give up the 
privileging of gender, along with subject-centered forays into women’s 
ways of thinking, acting, and reconceiving theory and politics, is met with 
suspicion and hostility. As Nancy Hartsock has asked, Why is it, just at 
the moment in Western history when previously silenced populations have 
begun to speak for themselves and on behalf of their subjectivities, that 
the concept of the subject and the possibility of discovering/creating a 
liberating “truth” become suspect? (Hartsock, 1987). In other words, is 
postmodernism merely a sophisticated version of the sour grapes phenome¬ 
non? Jane Flax (1987) suggests that postmodern theory is perhaps no less 
immune from the repressive and prohibitory functions practiced by other 
theories. In this case, she argues, the postmodernist suspicion of the 
subject effectively prohibits the exploration of (a repressed) subjectivity 
by and on behalf of women. Like Wendy Brown (1987), she believes that 
the subject under fire from postmodernism may be a more specifically 
masculine self than postmodern theorists have been willing to admit. With 
Nancy Hartsock, she is “deeply suspicious of the motives of those who 
counsel such a move at the moment when women have just begun to re¬ 
member their selves and claim an agentic subjectivity” (p. 106). 

The feminist case against postmodernism would seem to consist of 
several related claims. First, that postmodernism expresses the claims and 
needs of a constituency (white, privileged men of the industrialized West) 
that has already had an Enlightenment for itself and that is now ready and 
willing to subject that legacy to critical scrutiny. Secondly, that the objects 



76 / Christine Di Stefano 


of postmodernism’s various critical and deconstructive efforts have been 
the creations of a similarly specific and partial constituency (beginning 
with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle). Third, that mainstream postmodernist 
theory (Derrida, Lyotard, Rorty, Foucault) has been remarkably blind 
and insensitive to questions of gender in its own purportedly politicized 
rereadings of history, politics, and culture. Finally, that the postmodernist 
project, if seriously adopted by feminists, would make any semblance of 
a feminist politics impossible. To the extent that feminist politics is 
bound up with a specific constituency or subject, namely, women, the 
postmodernist prohibition against subject-centered inquiry and theory un¬ 
dermines the legitimacy of a broad-based organized movement dedicated 
to articulating and implementing the goals of such a constituency. 6 

Harding herself is ambivalent and cautious about the feasibility of a 
feminist postmodern politics. In recognizing “the permanent partiality of 
the feminist point of view,” she admits that we may become dangerously 
vulnerable to the hegemonic power of science and its epistemological 
strategies. Politically, we might add, this weakness translates into a vulner¬ 
ability to modem state and disciplinary power. Another problem is that 
“robust” solidarities of opposition (rather than of shared identity) may be 
psychologically and politically unreliable, unable to generate sufficient 
attachment and motivation on the part of potential activists. Can this 
solidarity be anything other than a local and negative solidarity, a solidarity 
of resistance rather than of substantive alternatives? If we are encouraged 
to embrace fractured identities, we are inevitably drawn to the forbidden 
question: Fractured with respect to what? Can fractured identities be 
embraced without the parallel construction of new fictions of counter¬ 
identity? The epistemological attractiveness of decentered knowledge¬ 
seeking lies precisely in the fact that it bears little resemblance to current 
conceptions of knowledge and rationality which, as we now appreciate, 
have been intimately bound up with modes of domination and illicit power. 
But this attractiveness carries a political liability and question of significant 
proportions: Is a postmodern politics—a political opposition capable of 
sustaining itself through time—seriously conceivable? 7 

Harding’s attempt to delineate the contours of a feminist postmodern 
politics is an instructive example of the difficulties attached to the effort. 
In the following passage, for example, she retains key features of the 
discourse she seeks to deconstruct, precisely to preserve some familiar 
sense of political plausibility: “I argue for the primacy of fragmented 
identities but only for those healthy ones constructed on a solid and non¬ 
defensive core identity, and only within a unified opposition, a solidarity 
against the culturally dominant forces for unitarianism” (p. 247, my 
emphasis). Harding has smuggled a forbidden vocabulary into her analy¬ 
sis, a vocabulary whose connotative context lies in the very modernist. 



Dilemmas of Difference / 77 


humanist, rationalist discourse she is presumably repudiating. Criteria 
such as these, of “health,” ’’solidity,” “non-defensiveness,” “identity,” 
and “unity” partake of the very ontology disallowed by postmodernism; 
they all require standards of normalcy, of judgement, of hierarchical 
distinctions which must be rooted within some organizing and legitimating 
ground or framework. Harding invokes them, I believe, to dodge the 
potentially anti-political and anti-feminist implications of postmodernism. 
As a result, the specter of a completely deconstructed rationality and its 
cohort, a deracinated politics, is held at bay. Harding argues as if we can 
have our cake and eat it too—that is, as if the critical deconstructive 
insights of postmodernism can be explicitly, defensibly, and plausibly 
harnessed to a progressive and substantive feminist politics. 

Such a harnessing would be a remarkable achievement indeed. The 
nagging question is whether the uncertain promise of a political linkage 
between feminism and postmodernism is worth the attendant potential 
risks. These risks exist not merely at the currently speculative level of 
wondering whether feminism without a subject and standpoint of some 
sort can survive. They are also palpably present in the existing language 
of postmodernism which has reappropriated the political vocabulary of 
“pluralism” to describe its version of theory as a huge “conversation” 
among a variety of fractured participants (Rorty, 1979). Yet, as Craig 
Owens (1983) has astutely remarked: “Pluralism . . . reduces us to being 
an other among others; it is not a recognition, but a reduction to [sic] 
difference to absolute indifference, equivalence, interchangeability . . .” 
(p. 58). It is as if postmodernism has returned us to the falsely innocent 
indifference of the very humanism to which it stands opposed; a rerun, in 
updated garb, of the modernist case of the incredible shrinking woman. 


For the time being, then, postmodernism is as entrenched in the dilem¬ 
mas of difference as are the modernist and anti-modernist alternatives. 
Within each framework, the fate of the female subject is instructive: In 
the rationalist framework, she dissolves into he as gender differences 
are collapsed into the (masculine) figure of the Everyman. The political 
counterparts to this collapsing of difference are liberalism and orthodox 
Marxism. Anti-rationalism preserves the figure of the differentiated female 
subject, but she is preserved at the expense of her transformation and 
liberation from the conventions of femininity. We can detect the echoes 
of radical feminism and of New Right anti-feminism here. With postratio¬ 
nalism, she dissolves into a perplexing plurality of differences, none of 
which can be theoretically or politically privileged over others. But as 
Martin Jay (1985) has pointed out, in our haste to deconstruct hierarchical 
distinctions such as gender as harmful illusions, we may fail to grasp 



78 / Christine Di Stefano 


“their tenacious rootedness in an objective world created over time and 
deeply resistant to change” (p. 140), and we will avoid the difficult and 
important question: Are some differences more basic than others? 

By reference to postmodernism’s own championing of an alternative to 
unified theoretical coherence, we should insist that the theoretical and 
political dilemmas of difference are well worth pondering. As yet, they 
remain stubbornly persistent and elusive, suggesting that gender is basic 
in ways that we have yet to fully understand, that it functions as “a 
difference that makes a difference,” even as it can no longer claim the 
legitimating mantle of the difference. The figure of the shrinking woman 
may perhaps be best appreciated and utilized as an aporia within contempo¬ 
rary theory: as a recurring paradox, question, dead end, or blind spot to 
which we must repeatedly return, because to ignore her altogether is to 
risk forgetting and thereby losing what is left of her. The alternatives, 
such as they exist without her, consist of generic (hu)manism, reified 
femininity, or postmodern pluralism. 

Notes 

1. See the following sources for excellent discussions of gender-related research 
in anthropology: A classic exposition of the cross-cultural variability of gen¬ 
der conceptions and practices is still (pace Derek Freeman) Mead (1963). 
Two of the most highly influential anthologies in feminist anthropology are 
R. Reiter (1975) and M. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (1974). A more recent 
anthology is S. Ortner and H. Whitehead (1981). For an extensive comparison 
of cross-cultural data and an effort to identify the factors most likely to issue 
in the cultural subordination of women, see P. Sanday (1981). For important 
critiques of the mistaken universalization of the female/nature: male/culture 
opposition originally advanced by S. Ortner (1974), see the collection of 
essays edited by C. MacCormack and M. Strathem (1980). An interesting 
discussion of the ways in which difference may serve women better than 
equality may be found in Y. Murphy and R. Murphy (1974). 

2. As Iris Young has pointed out to me, this chapter is vulnerable to the 
criticism that modernity and postmodernism are treated in overly generalized 
terms and suffer from insufficient specification. For example, a wide variety 
of theorists and philosophers, including Descartes, Hobbes, Kant, Marx, 
and J.S. Mill qualify as modem thinkers, even though the differences 
among them are substantial and significant. Furthermore, an overly mono¬ 
lithic account of modernity fails to recognize the counter-discourses which 
it has spawned: Hegel and Rousseau come to mind here. Postmodernism is 
a similarly diversified phenomenon. Theorists such as Gadamer, Foucault, 
Derrida, and Rorty are not interchangeable figures who inhabit a neatly 
singular discursive domain. Since the primary focus of this chapter is 
feminist theory—more specifically, feminist debates concerning the status 
of gender differences—I have depicted the modem and postmodern in broad 



Dilemmas of Difference / 79 


brush strokes. While particular strands of modem and postmodern theory 
would benefit from careful and sustained feminist interrogations, that is not 
the purpose of this chapter. Rather, I have chosen to situate the modem- 
postmodem controversy as a backdrop to contemporary feminist theory and 
discussion. Within the limited space of an article, I see no way to pursue 
both strategies simultaneously. In short, I have decided to privilege feminist 
theory here. 

3. Classic (but also internally contradictory) expositions of this strategy in¬ 
clude the following: John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women, in A. 
Rossi (1970), and M. Wollestonecraft (1975). See also A. Jaggar (1983), 
Chapter 7, for a discussion of liberalism that links up in close ways with 
this description of rationalism. 

4. For contemporary examples of feminist anti-egalitarianism, see H. 
Eisenstein and A. Jardine (1980). For a good review of the theme of 
difference in the literature of second-wave feminism, see H. Eisenstein 
(1983). For a philosophical (but not feminist) exploration of problems with 
egalitarian thinking, see E. Wolgast (1980). For an earlier exposition of 
similar themes by a nineteenth-century feminist, see M. Fuller (1971). 

5. For a compelling, sophisticated, and politically sensitive exploration of 
deconstructive feminist approaches to difference, see E. Meese (1986). 

6. Many of these themes are implicated in the modernist-postmodernist contro¬ 
versy. See the following sources for helpful discussions of the issues: J. Arac 
(1986), S. Benhabib (1984), R. Bernstein (1985), W. Connolly (1985), N. 
Fraser (1985a), J. Habermas (1983), A. Huyssen (1984), M. Jay (1984— 
85), C. Taylor (1984), J. Whitebook (1981-82), R. Wolin (1984-85). 

7. See A. J. Polan (1984) for an interesting discussion of politics and time. 

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4 


Feminism, Science, and the 
Anti-Enlightenment Critiques 

Sandra Harding 


At the center of an emerging controversy in U.S. feminism lies the 
question of whether there should be feminist sciences and epistemologies. 
Feminists in the scientific traditions have attempted to reform and trans¬ 
form the theories and practices of these traditions in order to create less 
partial and less distorted representations of the world than the mainstream, 
androcentric ones. They want less false stories about nature and social 
life; they want scientific explanations that can provide useful guides to 
improving the conditions of women. In addition to producing new theories 
and empirical studies, they have developed feminist empiricism and the 
feminist standpoint epistemologies as justificatory strategies for the new 
scientific projects. In important ways, these tendencies continue what have 
come to be labeled modernist and Enlightenment projects. These labels 
would appear to be appropriate for the feminist science and epistemology 
projects since they envision emancipatory possibilities for the harnessing 
of power to knowledge. 

Other feminists indebted to darker, less optimistic, European traditions 
of skepticism about the beneficial effects of the agendas of the Enlighten¬ 
ment and modernity are beginning to add the feminist science and episte¬ 
mology projects to their mainstream targets of criticism. They ask whether 
it is realistic to imagine that the scientific traditions can be harnessed in 
ways that will advance women’s situations. 

Here I want to show why it would be accurate and useful to conceptual¬ 
ize as lying within each of our feminisms some of the oppositions that 
have surfaced in this controversy but that are usually thought to occur 
only between the science and postmodernist projects. But my concern in 
doing so is also to defend the viability and progressiveness of the feminist 
science and epistemology projects against their postmodernist critics. My 
way of doing this will be to show that valuable postmodernist agendas are 


83 



84 / Sandra Harding 


also to be found in these science projects, and to argue that—both for 
better and worse—feminist criticisms of Enlightenment tendencies are 
certainly not free of Enlightenment projects. 1 

Should There Be Feminist Sciences? 

I take as my starting point the importance of fundamental insights and 
agendas of both feminist groups. In nonfeminist worlds, of course, science 
agendas and the Enlightenment critiques are opposed to each other. Ac¬ 
cording to the Enlightenment critics, science embodies the intellectual and 
political sins of the Enlightenment (e.g., Lyotard, 1984; Rorty, 1979; 
Foucault, 1981). According to Enlightenment defenders, these postmod¬ 
ernist critics are attempting to undermine the harnessing of science for 
democratic, anti-racist, ecologically sound, anti-militarist, and other pro¬ 
gressive ends; or, even if this is not what the postmodernists consciously 
intend, their positions have that consequence (e.g., Habermas 1983). 2 

Within feminist theory this opposition is replicated. For instance, Jane 
Flax (1989) argues that in spite of understandable ambivalence toward 
Enlightenment projects, feminism is, and should recognize that it is, 
solidly on the terrain of the postmodern. The feminist standpoint episte¬ 
mology is one of the theories she criticizes in this respect; it is still too 
firmly and uncritically grounded in faulty Enlightenment assumptions. 
She writes: 

the notion of a feminist standpoint that is truer than previous (male) 
ones seems to rest upon many problematic and unexamined assump¬ 
tions. These include an optimistic belief that people act rationally in 
their own interests and that reality has a structure that perfect reason 
(once perfected) can discover. Both of these assumptions in turn depend 
upon an uncritical appropriation of. . . Enlightenment ideas. . . . Fur¬ 
thermore, the notion of such a standpoint also assumes that the op¬ 
pressed are not in fundamental ways damaged by their social experi¬ 
ence. On the contrary, this position assumes that the oppressed have a 
privileged (and not just different) relation and ability to comprehend a 
reality that is “out there” waiting for our representation. It also presup¬ 
poses gendered social relations in which there is a category of beings 
who are fundamentally like each other by virtue of their sex—that is, 
it assumes the otherness men assign to women. Such a standpoint also 
assumes that women, unlike men, can be free of determination from 
their own participation in relations of domination such as those rooted 
in the social relations of race, class, or homophobia, (p. 56) 


The charge of “essentializing women,” and thereby eradicating or silenc¬ 
ing the voices of women of color, is frequently made against the feminist 



Feminism, Science, and the Anti-Enlightenment Critiques / 85 


science and epistemology projects. Donna Haraway (1989) argues that 
the standpoint epistemology, like other kinds of socialist feminist theory, 
is guilty of this theoretical and political error: 

women’s labor in the household and women’s activity as mothers 
generally, i.e., reproduction in the socialist feminist sense, entered 
theory on the authority of analogy to the Marxian concept of labor. The 
unity of women here rests on an epistemology based on the ontological 
structure of “labor.” Marxist/socialist feminism does not “naturalize” 
unity; it is a possible achievement based on a possible standpoint 
rooted in social relations. The essentializing move is in the ontological 
structure of labor or of its analogue, women’s activity, (p. 200) 

However, other feminist theorists (including some attempting to redirect 
the science traditions) argue that feminists must be wary of the anti- 
Enlightenment criticisms. They state, or clearly imply, that feminists are 
making a big mistake in adopting postmodernist postures. Luce Irigaray 
(1985) asks if postmodernism is the “last ruse” of patriarchy. Nancy 
Hartsock (1987) writes: 

In our efforts to find ways to include the voices of marginal groups, 
we might expect helpful guidance from those who have argued against 
totalizing and universalistic theories such as those of the Enlightenment. 

. . . Despite their apparent congruence with the project I am proposing, 
these theories, 1 contend, would hinder rather than help its 
accomplishment. . . . For those of us who want to understand the world 
systematically in order to change it, postmodernist theories at their best 
give little guidance. ... At their worst, postmodernist theories merely 
recapitulate the effects of Enlightenment theories—theories that deny 
marginalized people the right to participate in defining the terms of 
interaction with people in the mainstream, (pp. 190-191) 

Christine Di Stefano argues against the location of feminism fully in the 
terrain of the postmodern, claiming that an important strength of feminist 
theory and politics is to be found in its modernist insistence on the 
importance of gender. She writes: 

Contemporary Western feminism is firmly, if ambivalently, located 
in the modernist ethos, which made possible the feminist identification 
and critique of gender. . . . The concept of gender has made it possible 
for feminists to simultaneously explain and delegitimize the presumed 
homology between biological and social sex differences. At the same 
time, however, gender (rather than sex) differences have emerged as 
highly significant, salient features which do more to divide and distin- 



86 / Sandra Harding 


guish men and women from each other than to make them parts of some 
larger, complementary, “humanistic” whole. 1 (p. 64) 

She provides a succinct summary of key aspects of the feminist case 
against postmodernism: 

First, postmodernism expresses the claims and needs of a constitu¬ 
ency (white, privileged men of the industrialized West) that has already 
had an Enlightenment for itself and that is now ready and willing to 
subject that legacy to critical scrutiny. Secondly, ... the objects of 
postmodernism’s various critical and deconstructive efforts have been 
the creations of a similarly specific and partial constituency (beginning 
with Plato). Third, . . . mainstream postmodernist theory (Derrida, 
Lyotard, Rorty, Foucault) has been remarkably blind and insensitive to 
questions of gender in its own purportedly politicized rereading of 
history, politics, and culture. And finally, . . . the postmodernist proj¬ 
ect, if seriously adopted by feminists, would make any semblance of a 
feminist politics impossible. To the extent that feminist politics is bound 
up with a specific constituency or “subject,” namely, women, the 
postmodernist prohibition against subject-centered inquiry and theory 
undermines the legitimacy of a broad-based organized movement dedi¬ 
cated to articulating and implementing the goals of such a constituency. 

(pp. 30-31) 

Flax and Di Stefano noted the ambivalence of feminist theorists toward 
the choice between modernism and postmodernism. In light of the prob¬ 
lems feminists on each side point out in the other side’s position, one can 
understand such ambivalence. My argument is that such an ambivalence 
should be much more robust and principled than that identified by the 
theorists cited above. 4 They attribute a tentative, hesitant, reluctant ambiv¬ 
alence on the part of feminists—one frequently not even articulated— 
with respect to which side of this dispute feminism should be on. Their 
own analyses often explore and nourish ambivalence in this dispute. 
However, the principled ambivalence for which I argue is self-conscious 
and theoretically articulated. It is a positive program. There is a tendency 
among the critics of feminist ambivalence to attribute this attitude to a 
failure to understand what is really at issue. In contrast, I think that the 
rationale for feminist ambivalence here should refer not primarily to 
feminist error, or even exclusively to intellectual and political inadequacies 
in the mainstream debate. More important in generating this ambivalence 
are tensions and contradictions in the worlds in which feminists move. 
From this perspective, at least some of the tensions between the scientific 
and postmodernist agendas are desirable; they reflect different, sometimes 
conflicting, legitimate political and theoretical needs of women today. 



Feminism, Science, and the Anti-Enlightenment Critiques / 87 


In the mainstream postmodernist discourses. Western epistemology and 
its “policing of thought” have been primary targets of criticism. I begin 
here by asking an apparently naive question: Why do feminists need 
epistemology at all? Why not just accept the position of Rorty, Lyotard, 
Foucault, and other critics that there has already been far too much policing 
of thought, that epistemology invariably legitimates exploitative and ig¬ 
norance-producing links between knowledge and power? Why not just 
agree to avoid such risks by refusing to develop any feminist theories of 
knowledge? 

Justificatory Needs 

Considered from sociological and historical perspectives, epistemolo¬ 
gies are justificatory strategies. Like moral codes, they present themselves 
as challenging “might make right”—this time in the domain of knowledge 
claims. Foucault, Rorty, and other critics have pointed out epistemologies 
that end up rationalizing the legitimacy of the beliefs of the powerful. But 
not all theories of knowledge have that end, or epistemology would be 
only an honorific used to designate the winners in such struggles. For 
example, feminists could continue to develop theories of knowledge al¬ 
though male domination continued to take new forms and, in significant 
ways, increase in power (horrible as that is to contemplate). In such a 
case, feminist epistemology would not be rationalizing the beliefs of the 
powerful. 

At any rate, once we note that epistemologies are justificatory strategies, 
then we are led to ask questions about the hostile environment that creates 
the perception that one needs a theory of knowledge at all. Perhaps 
epistemologies are created only underpressure from a hostile environment. 
After all, why would anyone bother to articulate a theory of knowledge 
if her beliefs and the grounds for those beliefs were not challenged? 

First, feminists need a defense against, and an alternative, positive 
program to, the traditional discourses of both objectivism and “interpreta- 
tionism.” 5 Objectivism insists that scientific claims can be produced only 
through dispassionate, disinterested, value-free, point-of-viewless, objec¬ 
tive inquiry procedures, and that research generated or guided by feminist 
concerns obviously cannot meet such standards. Objectivism places 
women and feminists firmly outside a tightly defended barricade within 
which is claimed to lie all there is of reason, rationality, scientific method, 
truth, and guides to social policy that avoid privileging special interests. 
These objectivist discourses are to be found not only in the sciences, but 
also in every scholarly discipline. They are used to devalue and justify 
calculated ignorance about any thought, research, or scholarship that 
begins and proceeds by asking questions from the perspective of women’s 



88 / Sandra Harding 


activities. They are also to be found in the state and its judicial systems 
(MacKinnon, 1982-83), in the social welfare and health care systems, in 
every location where male dominance defends itself in modern Western 
cultures. Feminists are not alone in finding their projects wrongly devalued 
by these discourses; critics of capitalism and racism also point to objectiv¬ 
ism’s support of the status quo (e.g.. Staples, 1973; Rose and Rose, 
1979). Moreover, the objectivist discourses are not just the territory of 
intellectuals and academics; they are official dogma of the age. They stand 
to the feminist science and epistemology projects in much the same way 
as medieval theology stood to Copemican astronomy, Newtonian physics, 
and the new philosophies these would require. 

Feminists also need epistemological resources to deal with the loyal 
opposition to objectivism—here to be called interpretationism. This dis¬ 
course also discounts feminist knowledge claims in scientific and everyday 
contexts. It does so by taking the position that while feminists certainly 
have a right to their interpretation of who contributed what to the dawn 
of human history, or why rape occurs, or the causal role of family forms in 
historical change, that is just their opinion. The conflicting interpretations 
made by nonfeminists are equally defensible. For the sake of the argument, 
interpretationists can even graciously give feminism the point that these 
conflicting understandings originate in different social experiences. How¬ 
ever, they then go on to insist that since there is no way to decide 
“objectively” between the two, there is no reason why people who are not 
already convinced of feminist claims should support them. 6 This position 
functions to justify the silencing of women/feminists no less than its 
objectivist twin by refusing to recognize existing power relations of male 
dominance and the dynamics that insure intimate relations between partial 
and perverse beliefs and social power. The authors of interpretationist 
texts pretend that they are just plain folks like women, feminist critics, 
and everyone else. They pretend that no one can detect that as researchers 
and as reporters with access to publication, public policy, and university 
classrooms they are in positions of relatively great political power. 

Neither of these two dominant justificatory strategies work for feminists. 
When women appeal to “the facts” to justify their claims in ways parallel 
to those routinely used by men, impressions of impartiality, disinterest, 
value-neutrality do not arise (especially not for men). When women appeal 
to their interpretations of evidence, instead of this appeal having the 
meaning “this is a good (or plausible, justifiable, reasonable) interpreta¬ 
tion,” it asserts only that “this is just my interpretation.” Instead of 
certifying the evidence, the strategy has the effect of discounting it. 7 
Objectivism and interpretationism do not allow feminists to generate 
scientific problems, to define what should count as empirical evidence, and 
to determine what constitutes an adequate explanation or understanding. 



Feminism, Science, and the Anti-Enlightenment Critiques / 89 


Woman the knower can find no place in either of these two, intimately 
linked, mainstream epistemologies. 

Thus, the development of feminist justificatory strategies serves a sec¬ 
ond need also: the need for a decision procedure articulable to feminists— 
to ourselves, to each other—to guide choices in theory, research, and 
politics. That is, when traditional grounds for knowledge claims are not 
available, there is not only the problem of justifying one’s claims to others, 
but also the problem of justifying them to oneself and to those who might 
prove sympathetic to feminist goals. This need is easily discernible in 
research reports and political statements, where feminists struggle to 
articulate the grounds on which a claim that is controversial within feminist 
circles should be found reasonable, rational, empirically supported, desir¬ 
able, and so on. Jane Flax formulates well an analogous point in discussing 
the problem of the therapist who finds flawed all of the theories she could 
draw upon as resources to decide what to tell her distressed patient. There 
is no guide that is unquestionably believable to the therapist for her to use 
in choosing her words. The decision she makes has real consequences: 
The patient will make crucial choices depending on what the therapist 
says. Moreover, the therapist can’t just walk away from the situation and 
decide to take up some occupation where decision procedures are clearer: 
She cares about the patient; she wants the patient to get better (Flax, 
forthcoming book). I think that this is an excellent analogue to “the 
feminist’s epistemological problem”: What theory of knowledge can pro¬ 
vide a justifiable guide to practical decisions that have effects on women’s 
lives? Neither objectivism nor interpretationism serves women well. What 
could serve better? 

This question leads to another. Who are “ourselves”? Who are the 
women to whom feminist theory and politics should be accountable? As 
everyone knows, women are not homogenous—we differ most impor¬ 
tantly by class, race, culture, and sexual orientation. Here I draw attention 
only to the fact that two distinct difference agendas appear to wind in and 
out of much of these discussions (that is, in addition to attention to 
difference between the genders). On the one hand, there is difference 
as diversity and variety: the valuable feminist vision of understanding 
differences between women as richness and opportunity for cultural en¬ 
hancement and understanding rather than as a threat to the self of the 
speaker. This vision is expressed in contemporary life in, for instance, 
the appreciation of Puerto Rican feminists for the culture and experience 
of Mexican women. These two culturally differing groups of women have 
not stood in dominance relations to each other: “Difference” is simply 
cultural variation. On the other hand, there is the existence of differences 
due to structures of domination that appears in criticism of white Western 
women’s participation in and benefit from race, class, and cultural exploi- 



90 / Sandra Harding 


tation. 8 “We women” are both diverse and. often, in domination rela¬ 
tions—consciously or not—with each other. We need theories of knowl¬ 
edge that recognize these differences and, along with substantive feminist 
theories, motivate and enable us to work against exploitative relations 
between women. 

This brings us to the final but not least justificatory need. Feminists 
have developed justificatory strategies that value feminist perspectives as 
resources for organizing to end male domination. Feminist sciences and 
epistemologies should help to bring to consciousness less mystified under¬ 
standings of women’s and men’s situations so that these understandings 
can energize and direct women and men to struggle on behalf of eliminat¬ 
ing the subordination of women in all of its race, class, and cultural forms. 

Each of the feminist epistemologies does not respond equally to all of 
these needs. Nevertheless, I think that these needs have provided important 
constraints within which justificatory strategies have been constructed. 
Feminist epistemologies are embattled. They struggle to create space for 
feminist voices within worlds—academic, intellectual, social, economic, 
state policy, judicial practice, health care—that continually try to squeeze 
them out, isolate them, and co-opt them. 

Postmodern Tendencies in Feminist Theories 
of Scientific Knowledge 

In response to these needs, two main justificatory strategies in the 
natural and social sciences have been developed—feminist empiricism and 
the feminist standpoint theories. As I have discussed these epistemologies 
elsewhere, I will delineate each with just enough detail to enable me to 
point out how they do respond to some of the perceived justificatory needs 
mentioned earlier and how each begins to move out of the terrain of the 
Enlightenment. 9 

Feminist Empiricism 

Feminist empiricism is the justificatory strategy that has been used 
primarily by researchers in biology and the social sciences. Feminist 
empiricists argue that sexism and androcentrism in scientific inquiry are 
entirely the consequence of badly done science. Sexist and androcentric 
distortions in the results of research in biology and the social sciences are 
caused by social biases. These prejudices are the result of hostile attitudes 
and false beliefs due to superstitions, ignorance, or mis-education. Andro¬ 
centric biases enter the research process particularly at the stage when 
scientific problems are identified and defined, and when concepts and 
hypotheses are formulated. But they also appear in the design of research 



Feminism, Science, and the Anti-Enlightenment Critiques / 91 


and in the collection and interpretation of data. Sexist and androcentric 
biases can be eliminated by stricter adherence to the existing methodologi¬ 
cal norms of scientific inquiry. 

Feminist empiricists try to use to feminist advantage the strategies of 
those who respond to feminist criticisms with such (patently false) remarks 
as: “Everyone knows that permitting only men to interview only men 
about both men’s and women’s beliefs and behaviors is just plain bad 
science.” (Of course, this is the science upon which 99% of the claims of 
the social sciences rest and to which no one objected before the women’s 
movement.) “Everyone knows that both sexes contributed to the evolution 
of our species.” (Try to find that recognition in standard biology texts.) 
They argue that the women’s movement alerts everyone to the social 
blinders, the distorted and clouded lenses, through which we have been 
experiencing the world around (and within) us. The women’s movement 
creates the conditions that make better science possible—that makes the 
sciences of today better able to achieve the goals of the founders of modern 
science. Sociologists Marcia Millman and Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1975) 
make this argument in the following way: 

Movements of social liberation . . . make it possible for people to 
see the world in an enlarged perspective because they remove the covers 
and blinders that obscure knowledge and observation. In the last decade 
no social movement has had a more startling or consequential impact 
on the way people see and act in the world than the women’s 
movement. . . . We can see and plainly speak about things that have 
always been there, but that formerly were unacknowledged. Indeed, 
today it is impossible to escape noticing features of social life that were 
invisible only ten years ago. (p. vii) 


Other feminist empiricists point out that the women’s movement creates 
the opportunity for there to be more women researchers and feminist (male 
and female) ones, who are more likely than men or sexists to notice 
androcentric biases. 10 

This theory of knowledge meets an important range of justificatory 
needs. For one thing, its appeal is obvious as a defense against objectivism 
and interpretationism. Many of the claims emerging from feminist research 
in biology and the social sciences are capable of—and have already 
begun—accumulating better empirical support than the androcentric ones 
they would replace. This research better meets the overt standards of 
“good science” than do the purportedly gender-blind studies. I think that 
the weight of this empirical support should be valued more highly than 
the ideal of value-neutrality that was advanced only in order to increase 
empirical support for hypotheses. It is not that all feminist claims are 



92 / Sandra Harding 


automatically to be preferred because they are feminist; rather, when the 
results of such research show good empirical support, the fact that they 
were produced through politically guided research should not count against 
them. Moreover, it is difficult for interpretationism to gain a hold against 
feminist empiricism. The feminist results of research are not simply as 
good as the sexist claims they replace; they conflict with the sexist claims, 
and the feminist argument is that anyone should be able to see that the 
evidence supports the feminist claims over the sexist ones. 

Moreover, feminist empiricism appears to leave intact a great deal of 
scientists’ and philosophers’ traditional understandings of the principles 
of adequate scientific research. It appears to challenge mainly the incom¬ 
plete way scientific method has been practiced, not the norms of science 
themselves. Many scientists will admit that the social values and political 
agendas of feminists raise new issues, enlarge the scope of inquiry, and 
reveal cause for greater care in the conduct of research. But the logic of the 
research process and of scientific explanation appear to rest fundamentally 
untouched by these challenges. This conservatism enables feminist criti¬ 
cisms to be heard by people who are just now developing interest in 
feminist research and scholarship and who might well be leery of more 
radical claims. Feminist empiricism stays close to the kinds of justificatory 
appeals that are already respected in the natural and social sciences. 

This epistemology is not particularly welcoming to issues of race, 
class, or cultural differences in women as subjects of knowledge—that is, 
between women as agents of knowledge. It does not invite analysis of 
these differences, tending to express feminist concerns in terms that imply 
homogeneity among feminist agents of knowledge. However, it must be 
noted that the kind of argument Millman and Kanter made should be 
equally convincing with respect to the positive effects of anti-racist and 
working-class movements on the growth of knowledge. Thus, feminist 
empiricism can be used to argue for the importance of other emancipatory 
political movements, in addition to feminism, to the growth of knowledge. 
Moreover, for empirical social scientists, the conservatism of feminist 
empiricism may well appear to offer the most effective grounds for defend¬ 
ing controversial claims about race, class, and cultural differences in 
women as objects of research. 

In these ways, feminist empiricism satisfies a range of the perceived 
justificatory needs mentioned earlier. Many feminist critics certainly think 
that it is far too conservative. It is these dissatisfactions that have motivated 
development of the standpoint epistemologies by some and the turn by 
others to criticisms of the Enlightenment vision that shines so clearly 
through this feminist theory of knowledge. 

However, I think a case can be made that even this conservative justifi¬ 
catory strategy begins to undermine Enlightenment assumptions in sig- 



Feminism, Science, and the Anti-Enlightenment Critiques / 93 


nificant ways. I do not want to overstate the case here. Feminist empiricists 
certainly would be far more comfortable within an Enlightenment world, 
extinct though that possibility be, than they are in the more treacherous 
contemporary epistemological terrain. By no means do I wish to suggest 
that feminist empiricists are self-consciously or paradigmatically postmod¬ 
ern. In fact, they unanimously ignore or inveigh against postmodernist 
projects in feminism. My argument, instead, is that significant dimensions 
of the break between modernity and postmodernism can be found within 
this stance. There are tendencies in these thinkers that lead them firmly 
out of the terrain of the Enlightenment on which they have intended to 
ground their arguments. 

These steps toward postmodernism are forced, I think, by the subject, 
the ideal knower, of feminist empiricism. She is a woman scientist working 
in the environment of the present women’s movement. Or, at least, this 
knower begins his/her analyses from the objective situation of such a 
woman scientist. (That is, there is nothing in the structure of this epistemol¬ 
ogy that forbids men from producing feminist research. However, what 
is ideal about knowers for feminist empiricists arises from the actual 
situation of women researchers, e.g., their situations as women working 
now make them more likely than men to detect and speak about the topics 
of concern to feminist researchers.) 1 am suggesting that the knowing 
subject of feminist empiricism inadvertently but inevitably is in tension 
with Enlightenment assumptions. A woman scientist cannot be the En¬ 
lightenment’s transhistorical, unitary individual, and the present feminist 
environment makes it difficult for women scientists to avoid stumbling 
upon this fact. This “failure” is the source of hidden riches in feminist 
empiricism. 

The consciousness of the ideal knower is not unitary because the femi¬ 
nism of this epistemology undermines its empiricism, although its defend¬ 
ers clearly intend to hang on to whatever they can of the empiricism. 
Feminist empiricism holds on to the idea that a goal of science is to 
produce less biased, more objective claims, but it also insists on what is 
overtly forbidden in empiricism—the importance of analyzing and assign¬ 
ing different epistemological values to the social identities of inquirers. 
(In its institutional memory, paternal empiricism recollects that this is 
what it objected to in medieval knowledge-seeking; this is what it objected 
to in Lysenkoism and Nazi science.) The ideal agent of knowledge, the 
ideal scientist, is not a disembodied mind, but one located in history. The 
historical location of researchers—during and after feminism—is what 
permits them to create less biased, more objective accounts in biology and 
the social sciences, although individual initiative clearly is necessary to 
the production of such accounts since not everyone these days produces 
them. Consequently, this epistemology challenges the idea that 



94 / Sandra Harding 


knowledge-seeking is usefully conceptualized as an activity of individuals 
in isolation from their social milieux. I think my thoughts, but it is my 
culture that observes through my eyes and arranges and rearranges 
thoughts in my mind. Moreover, scientific method both is and isn’t prob¬ 
lematic for feminist empiricists. On the one hand, they claim simply to 
be following the principles of inquiry even more rigorously than their 
androcentric predecessors who failed to control for gender bias in the 
research process in numerous ways. On the other hand, they point out that 
without the challenge of feminism, scientific method couldn’t detect or 
eliminate sexist and androcentric biases. They seem to be saying that 
scientific method is intrinsically incapable of doing what it was supposedly 
constructed to do. 

Inquirers beneficially shaped by history (and not just, or even, the 
history of science), but producing less-false belief; shaped by culture in 
ways advantageous to the growth of knowledge, but nevertheless individ¬ 
ual thinkers; using scientific method more rigorously, and also undermin¬ 
ing faith in it—the feminism and the empiricism of this position are in 
tension with each other. The ideal knower expresses this tension; although 
in the writings of the researchers in biology and the social sciences who 
adopt this justificatory strategy, the tension must be suppressed all the 
more because it is not analyzed. (Indeed, it cannot be analyzed with only 
the impoverished and mystifying theoretical resources of empiricism.) 

For these reasons, I think it is reasonable to see feminist empiricism as 
inadvertently taking steps toward reconstructing both the ideal knower 
and the ideal of objectivity in ways uncongenial to Enlightenment assump¬ 
tions. It is a mistake to see this position as simply a repetition of an 
androcentric epistemology. 

Feminist Standpoint Theory 

Even though the feminist empiricists do insist, I believe, on the impor¬ 
tance of the historical identity of the ideal knower, it would certainly be 
hard to defend their understanding of history and of the material dimen¬ 
sions of social identity as rich enough to do justice to the distinctiveness 
of feminism’s potential and actual contributions to the growth of knowl¬ 
edge. A second major line of justification of feminist research is provided 
by the standpoint theorists." They explicitly develop some of the notions 
that appear only dimly in feminist empiricist assumptions, and they also 
take these in directions that empiricists—even feminist empiricists— 
would never accept. Indeed, one way to think of the standpoint theories 
is as analyses and explanations of the research generated by feminist 
empiricists. The standpoint theorists have tended to stress their differences 
from empiricist theories of knowledge, and this stress is necessary in order 



Feminism, Science, and the Anti-Enlightenment Critiques / 95 


to highlight what is really valuable about these theories. However, there 
are some tendencies they share. 

Knowledge, they observe, is supposed to be grounded in experience. 
But what has counted as knowledge in modem. Western cultures originates 
in and is tested against only a certain limited and distorted kind of social 
experience. The experiences arising from the activities assigned to women, 
understood through feminist theory, provide a starting point for developing 
potentially more complete and less distorted knowledge claims than do 
men’s experiences (Hartsock, 1983; Smith, 1974, 1987; Rose, 1983). 12 

Consider Dorothy Smith’s form of this argument. In our society, 
women have been assigned the kinds of work that men do not want to 
do. Several aspects of this division of activity by gender have conse¬ 
quences for what can be known from the perspective of men’s and 
women’s activities. “Women’s work” relieves men of the need to take 
care of their bodies or of the local places where they exist, freeing 
men to immerse themselves in the world of abstract concepts. The 
labor of women thereby articulates and shapes men’s concepts of the 
world into those appropriate for administrative work. Moreover, the 
more successfully women perform their work, the more invisible does 
it become to men. Men who are relieved of the need to maintain their 
own bodies and the local places where these bodies exist can now see 
as real only what corresponds to their abstracted mental world. Men 
see “women’s work” as not real human activity—self-chosen and 
consciously willed—but only as natural activity, an instinctual labor of 
love. Women are thus excluded from men’s conceptions of culture. 
Furthermore, women’s actual experiences of their own activities are 
incomprehensible and inexpressible within the distorted abstractions of 
men’s conceptual schemes. Women are alienated from their own 
experience by the use of the dominant conceptual schemes. 

However, for women sociologists (we can generalize here—for women 
inquirers, scientists, researchers, theorists), a “line of fault” opens up 
between their experiences and the dominant conceptual schemes. This 
disjuncture is the break along which much major work in the women’s 
movement has focused. The politics of the women’s movement has drawn 
attention to the lack of fit between women’s experiences and the dominant 
conceptual schemes. It is to the “bifurcated consciousness” of women 
researchers that we should attribute the origins of the greater adequacy of 
the results of feminist inquiry. Looking at nature and social relations from 
the perspective of “men’s work” can provide only partial and distorted 
understandings. (Of course, only white, Western, professional/manageri¬ 
al-class men are permitted this work, although it is the goal of more 
widespread ideals of masculinity.) Research that is capable of explaining 
social life in ways that are useful to anyone besides administrators must 



96 / Sandra Harding 


recover the understanding of women, men, and social relations available 
from the perspective of women’s activities. 

To give an example that Smith discusses, the concept “housework,” 
which appears in historical, sociological, and economic studies, at least 
permits the recognition that what women do at home is neither instinctual 
activity nor a labor of love. However, it conceptualizes this activity on an 
analogy with the division of men’s activities into paid work and leisure. 
Is housework work? Yes! However, it has no fixed hours or responsibili¬ 
ties, no qualifications, wages, days off for sickness, retirement, or retire¬ 
ment benefits. Is it leisure? No, although even under the worst of condi¬ 
tions it has rewarding and rejuvenating aspects. As social scientists and 
liberal political philosophers use the term, housework includes raising 
one’s children, entertaining friends, caring for loved ones, and other 
activities not appropriately understood through the wage-labor/leisure con¬ 
struct. Smith argues that this activity should be analyzed through concepts 
that arise from women’s experience of it, not with concepts selected to 
account for men’s experience of their work. Moreover, our understanding 
of men’s activities also is distorted by reliance on conceptual schemes 
arising only from the activities of men in the administrative classes. How 
would our understanding of men’s activities in domestic life, warfare, or 
the economy be expanded and transformed if it were structured by ques¬ 
tions and concepts arising from those activities assigned predominantly to 
women that make possible men’s participation in domestic life, warfare, 
and the economy? 

This justificatory strategy has the virtue of providing a general theory 
of the greater adequacy of research that begins in questions arising from 
the perspective of women’s activities, and that regards this perspective as 
an important part of the data on which the evidence for all knowledge 
claims should be based. The standpoint theorists reassert the possibility 
of science providing less distorted representations of the world around us, 
but not a science that myopically beatifies a mythical method and thus is 
unable to counter the sexist, racist, and class biases built into the very 
social structure and agendas of science. 

This theory of knowledge resolves more satisfactorily certain problems 
with feminist empiricism. It sets within a larger social theory its explana¬ 
tion of the importance of the origin of scientific problems (of the context 
of discovery) for the eventual picture of science. It eschews blind alle¬ 
giance to scientific method, concluding that no method, at least in the 
sciences’ sense of this term, is powerful enough to eliminate social biases 
that are as widely held as the scientific community itself. In claiming that 
inquiry from the standpoint of women (or the feminist standpoint) can 
overcome the partiality and distortion of the dominant androcentric/bour- 
geois/Westem sciences, it directly undermines the point-of-viewlessness 



Feminism, Science, and the Anti-Enlightenment Critiques / 97 

of objectivism while refusing the relativism of interpretationism. The 
advocates of this justificatory strategy explicitly call for women of color, 
working-class women, and lesbians to be present among the women whose 
experiences generate inquiry. They all discuss the limitations of sciences 
emerging only from white, Western, homophobic, academic feminisms. 
In this respect, they take a more actively critical stance toward the homoge¬ 
neity of women assumed by much feminist inquiry. Moreover, the impor¬ 
tance of political activism to the advance of understanding is conceptual¬ 
ized far more richly by the standpoint theorists. For instance, Nancy 
Hartsock (1983) says: 

Women’s lives, like men’s, are structured by social relations which 
manifest the experience of the dominant gender and class. The ability 
to go beneath the surface of appearances to reveal the real but concealed 
social relations requires both theoretical and political activity. Feminist 
theorists must demand that feminist theorizing be grounded in women's 
material activity and must as well be part of the political struggle 
necessary to develop areas of social life modeled on this activity, (p. 

304) 

There are many interesting and difficult issues this epistemology 
raises.” 1 will not identify or attempt to resolve these here since my 
focus is instead on how this epistemology incorporates anti-Enlightenment 
tendencies. How are important dimensions of the transition from modern¬ 
ity to postmodernism reasonably seen as lying within this theoretical 
tendency, not just as between it and the more readily identified feminist 
postmodernist critics? I think that standpoint theory explicitly articulates, 
develops, and pushes to more radical conclusions the anti-Enlightenment 
tendencies that were only implicit in feminist empiricism. 

Where feminist empiricists are ambivalent about the Enlightenment 
faith in scientific method—it both is and isn’t part of the problem for 
feminist researchers—the feminist standpoint theorists are unambivalently 
opposed to the idea that a-historical principles of inquiry can insure ever 
more perfect representations of the world. They challenge the possibility of 
such a “science machine” or algorithm for producing true representations. 

Moreover, these writers theorize not just the importance of feminist 
politics being located in the historical environment in which science 
occurs, as the feminist empiricists attempt to do, but the permeation of 
science as an institution and a system of thought by political life. Like the 
empiricists, they hold that movements for social liberation advance the 
growth of knowledge. The bourgeois revolution of the fifteenth to seven¬ 
teenth centuries—the movement from feudalism to modernity—made it 
possible for modem science itself to emerge. The proletarian movement 



98 / Sandra Harding 


of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries permitted an understanding 
of the effects of class struggles on conceptions of nature and social 
relations. The post-1960 decline (or. at least, transformation) of North 
Atlantic colonialism creates the possibilities for widespread understand¬ 
ings of how racism shapes thought. The international women’s movement 
is just the most recent of these emancipatory movements. But the reason 
why science advances at these moments is not primarily because “ideas 
are in the air.” They get in the air because of changes in concrete social 
relations. It is actual administrative/managerial activities which tend to 
produce abstract masculinity; it is caring labor that tends to produce 
stereotypically feminine concerns and thought patterns; and it is participa¬ 
tion in both that makes possible feminist concerns and patterns of thought. 
So the point about my culture observing through my eyes is, here, that 
my actual daily activities, structured by social divisions of activity by 
gender, set limits on what I (and, therefore, my culture) can see. Move¬ 
ments of social liberation make possible new kinds of human activity, and 
it is on the basis of this activity that new sciences can emerge.' 4 This 
historical account conflicts with the Enlightenment’s own explanations of 
the history of science, but it does so without asserting the perfection of 
thought at any moment in that history. 

Furthermore, the standpoint epistemologies specifically articulate the 
intuition of feminist empiricism that a unitary consciousness is an obstacle 
to understanding. All refer to the importance of the gap between women’s 
consciousness and the social order. They speak of women’s alienation 
from our behavior, of the line of fault of women’s consciousness, of 
women’s bifurcated consciousness. This focus of the epistemologists is 
supported by the recurring report in the social sciences that women’s 
behavior is a much less reliable guide to their belief than is men’s behavior 
to their belief. It is supported by sociological, psychological, and eco¬ 
nomic analyses of the dysfunctionality of the social order for women. 

For these reasons, it is reasonable to see feminist standpoint theory as 
in tension with central Enlightenment assumptions. Reality does not have 
a structure, for the social order is made up of many structures that both 
overlap and conflict—androcentrism, racism, and class oppression, to 
mention just three. But from the perspective of a feminist standpoint, 
some of these structures become visible for the first time. The oppressed 
are indeed damaged by their social experience, but what is a disadvantage 
in terms of their oppression can become an advantage in terms of science: 
Starting off from administrative/managerial activity in order to explain 
the world insures more partial and distorted understandings than starting 
off from the contradictory activities of women scientists. Women are, 
indeed, like each other by virtue of their sex and also by virtue of the 
otherness that men assign to women. Of course, they differ by race, class. 



Feminism, Science, and the Anti-Enlightenment Critiques / 99 


culture, and other important social features; in important respects, they 
are more like men in their own race, class, culture than like women in 
other races, and so on. But standpoint theory does not require any kind 
of feminine essentialism, as this frequently mentioned critique supposes. 
It analyzes the essentialism that androcentrism assigns to women, locates 
its historical conditions, and proposes ways to counter it. Standpoint 
theory does not assume that women are different from men in that they 
are free of participation in race, class, and homophobic social relations. 15 
These theorists constantly call for more vigorous feminist analysis of and 
politics against these forms of oppression. 

The Modernity of Feminist Postmodernism 

However a specifically feminist alternative to Enlightenment projects 
may develop, it is not clear how it could completely take leave of Enlight¬ 
enment assumptions and still remain feminist. The critics are right that 
feminism (also) stands on Enlightenment ground. Most obviously, critics 
of the feminist epistemologies join those they criticize in believing in the 
desirability and the possibility of social progress, and that improved 
theories about ourselves and the world around us will contribute to that 
progress. Thus, within feminism, the disagreement is over other matters, 
such as what those theories should say and who should get to define what 
counts as social progress. In this respect it is misleading to assume that 
the line between feminist supporters and critics of Enlightenment assump¬ 
tions is as broadly drawn as many take it to be in the nonfeminist dis¬ 
courses. 

I quoted earlier a number of criticisms that contribute to the “feminist 
case against postmodernism.” The point of these critics is that feminists 
should not adopt the postmodernist agenda because it undermines impor¬ 
tant feminist projects in significant ways. I think feminist postmodernism 
has important contributions to make to feminist theory and politics. But 
here I want to note two ways in which it appears to subscribe to too 
many Enlightenment assumptions. Paradoxically, feminist postmodernists 
adhere to some powerful Enlightenment assumptions that even the feminist 
empiricists do not. 

For one thing, in criticizing the very goal of an improved, specifically 
feminist science and epistemology, they appear to agree with Enlighten¬ 
ment tendencies that all possible science and epistemology—anything 
deserving these names—must be containable within modem, androcen¬ 
tric, Western, bourgeois forms. However, we are certainly entitled to 
skepticism about this assumption. It is virtually impossible to specify 
significant commonalities between the industrialized production of knowl¬ 
edge that characterizes research in the natural sciences and much of 



100 / Sandra Harding 


the social sciences today and the craft tinkering that produced Galileo’s 
astronomy and Newton’s physics. Obviously, science has changed im¬ 
mensely even during modernity (See Harding 1986, p. 68ff). Why can’t 
it continue to change in the future? Why aren’t scientific projects formu¬ 
lated for specifically feminist ends an important part of such change? 
Moreover, the high cultures of Asia and Africa—those that existed prior 
to the rise of the North Atlantic cultures—had sophisticated sciences and 
technologies by the standards of their day (See Goonatilake, 1984; Rod¬ 
ney, 1982; Van Sertima, 1986). The extent of human rationality is neither 
restricted to—nor perhaps paradigmatically exhibited by—the modem 
West. If other institutions and practices of gaining knowledge have existed 
outside the modem, bourgeois, androcentric West, why must desirable 
forms of science and knowledge be restricted to the dominant ones in the 
modem West? 

Additionally, the postmodernist critics of feminist science, like the most 
positivist of Enlightenment thinkers, appear to assume that if one gives 
up the goal of telling one true story about reality, one must also give up 
trying to tell less false stories. They assume a symmetry between truth 
and falsity. Yet, even Thomas Kuhn argued that it would be better to 
understand the history of science in terms of increasing distance from 
falsity rather than closeness to truth. Kuhn’s work has certainly been 
responsible for radical shifts in understandings of the history of science— 
I do not mean to undervalue its importance. But it did not propose the 
kinds of shifts in our theories of scientific knowledge that the feminist 
epistemologies require. If even such relatively traditional thinking about 
science can propose that truth and falsity need not always be regarded as 
symmetrical, as opposite poles of the same continuum, this certainly 
should be a real option within feminist thought. Feminist inquiry can aim 
to produce less partial and perverse representations without having to 
assert the absolute, complete, universal, or eternal adequacy of these 
representations. Isn’t that how we should take the feminist Enlightenment 
critics’ own analyses? 


I have been arguing that both the feminist science thinkers and their 
feminist postmodernist critics stand with one foot in modernity and the 
other in the lands beyond. Moreover, that link to the past has problematic 
and fruitful aspects for both projects. The tensions between Enlightenment 
and postmodernist tendencies occur between them, but they also occur in 
different ways within each project. 

An epistemology—this kind of social theory—is a justificatory strategy. 
Important differences between the feminist science and epistemology 
projects and the feminist Enlightenment critiques are generated in large 



Feminism, Science, and the Anti-Enlightenment Critiques / 101 


part by the different intellectual and social contexts in which they each 
explore, expand, and defend consequences of the emergence of feminist 
explanations of nature and social life. These tendencies have different 
histories, different audiences, and, therefore, different projects. Memories 
of other disputes muddy the psychic grounds on which they meet. Each 
should be understood as an attempt to escape damaging limitations of the 
dominant social relations and their conceptual schemes. These projects 
are incomplete—we haven’t yet figured out how to escape such limita¬ 
tions. Most likely, we are not yet in an historical era when such vision 
should be possible. At this moment in history, our feminisms need both 
Enlightenment and postmodernist agendas—but we don’t need the same 
ones for the same purposes or in the same forms as do white, bourgeois, 
androcentric Westerners. 

Notes 

1. Jane Flax, Donna Haraway, and Linda Nicholson have provided helpful 
criticisms and comments on my arguments. Their own positions are signifi¬ 
cantly different from the ones I take here. 

This chapter develops further and in different directions projects begun 
in earlier writings. In The Science Question in Feminism (1986) I argued that 
all of the feminist standpoint writings challenge dichotomies fundamental to 
the history of modem Western thought and practice. They challenge emo¬ 
tional versus intellectual and manual activity; sensuous, concrete, and rela¬ 
tional versus abstract activity; unconscious (and repressed) versus conscious 
projects; ideas arising from everyday life versus those arising from adminis¬ 
trative work; socially caused false beliefs versus true beliefs with no social 
origins. I argued that consequently in these respects they are in opposition 
to projects of modernity and the Enlightenment. There and in my article in 
Science, Morality and Feminist Theory (1987) I suggested reasons to think 
that feminism does not need the feminine, truth, or the transcendental 
subject of history and science—all dear to the heart of the Enlightenment. 
This chapter adds items to the list of postmodernist characteristics to be 
found in the feminist standpoint epistemologies, points to at least hints of 
such characteristics even in the far more conservative feminist empiricist 
framework, and begins an analysis of the modernity of feminist postmodern¬ 
ism. Because the feminist scientific epistemologies are still too recently 
articulated as such for it to be reasonable to assume familiarity with them, 
I must briefly review some of their central features in order to defend them. 
1 have analyzed them in The Science Question in Feminism; key features 
of that analysis are repeated in my article in APA Feminism and Philosophy 
Newsletter (1987) and in the concluding essay in Feminism and Methodol¬ 
ogy: Social Science Issues (1987). 

2. The borders and character of postmodernism, its two forms, its relation to 
modernism (and modernization) are themselves the topic of continual de- 



102 / Sandra Harding 


bate. For one useful guide to the debates, see Huyssen, 1989. But among 
the issues central to the feminist postmodernist critiques of the feminist 
science and epistemology projects are skepticism about beliefs in: 

The existence of a stable, coherent self. . . . Reason and its 
“science”—philosophy—can provide an objective, reliable, and 
universal foundation for knowledge. . . . The knowledge ac¬ 
quired from the right use of reason will be “True”. . . . Reason 
itself has transcendental and universal qualities. . . . Freedom 
consists in obedience to laws that conform to the necessary results 
of the right use of reason. ... By grounding claims to authority 
in reason, the conflicts between truth, knowledge, and power can 
be overcome. Truth can serve power without distortion; in turn, 
by utilizing knowledge in the service of power both freedom and 
progress will be assured. Knowledge can be both neutral (e.g., 
grounded in universal reason, not particular “interests”) and also 
socially beneficial. . . . Science, as the exemplar of the right use 
of reason, is also the paradigm for all true knowledge. Science is 
neutral in its methods and contents but socially beneficial in its 
results. . . . Language is in some sense transparent. . . . Objects 
are not linguistically (or socially) constructed, they are merely 
made present to consciousness by naming and the right use of 
language. (Flax, 1989, pp. 41-42) 

3. I do not mean to oversimplify the analyses either of Di Stefano or of Flax 
(Note No. 2). Both share my project of trying to weave together some of the 
fundamental contributions of feminist social theory and of the postmodernist 
Enlightenment critiques while also developing a critical analysis of other 
strains in feminism and postmodernism. They and I each arrive at this 
project from different starting points, and our analyses head off in other 
directions, and sometimes conflict as well. (Flax’s discussion of these issues 
is book-length: see her article in this book and her forthcoming book.) 

4. See my book The Science Question in Feminism (1986) and Alison Wylie’s 
article (1987). 

5. I use the awkward neologism interpretationism rather than relativism here 
since relativism is a consequence, but not always the intent, of interpreta¬ 
tionism. In philosophic circles, its advocates refer to it as intentionalism, 
though that term is not widely understood outside philosophy. The assump¬ 
tions of interpretationism can be found in much ethnomethodology, partici¬ 
pant-observer research, and phenomenological studies in the social sci¬ 
ences. 

6. This position is relativist, so the defense of it is always made in bad faith 
(or ignorance). A consistent relativist would not try to argue for, to assert 
against alternative opinions, objectivity-assuming claims about his views. 
The fact of assertion conflicts with the position asserted, as a long stream 
of philosophic critics of relativism have pointed out. 

7. M.F. Belenky et al. (1986) point out that a woman’s claim that “It’s my 



Feminism, Science, and the Anti-Enlightenment Critiques / 103 


opinion . . means that it is just her opinion; a man’s identical sentence 
means he’s got a right to his opinion. 

8. 1 think that one tension between the feminist science and epistemology 
projects and their anti-Enlightenment critics arises over how to conceptual¬ 
ize differences between women in ways that are not themselves ideological. 
Are both kinds of differences between women theorized, conceptualized, 
given metaphysical space—not just called for and said to be welcome— 
within both theoretical tendencies? 

9. The following descriptions of these two epistemologies are taken with but 
slight modification from my article in the APA Feminism and Philosophy 
Newsletter. My original discussion of them was in The Science Question 
in Feminism (1986). The issue of the postmodernist tendencies in the 
epistemologies was raised in Chapter 6 and begins where 1 left off there. 

10. Because those whom I have called feminist empiricists frequently take 
themselves to be doing nothing epistemologically unusual—they are simply 
adhering very strictly to the norms of science—they tend not to articulate 
this theory of knowledge as such. Examples can be found in reports of 
substantive feminist research, especially in their obligatory sections on 
methods. Fausto-Sterling (1985, p. 208) intentionally frames her critical 
evaluation of sex-difference research as addressing a problem of “poorly 
done science.” She also provides an excellent discussion of the value of the 
women’s movement to the creation of good science. 

11. There have also been several kinds of feminist critiques of androcentric 
epistemology that are at least partially independent of these two developed 
positive theories of knowledge. More radical than the feminist criticisms 
of “bad science” are those that take as their target Western generalizations 
from masculine to human in the case of ideal reason. For the standpoint 
theorists, this criticism provides one motivation for the development of a 
feminist epistemology. But several important critics appear to intentionally 
stop short of such a theoretical program. Philosophers such as Genevieve 
Lloyd (1984) and Sara Ruddick (1980) and scientists such as Evelyn Fox 
Keller (1984) criticize what has come to be called “abstract masculinity.” 
They point out how ideals of Western rationality, including scientific 
thought, distort, and leave partial our understandings of nature and social 
relations. These ideals devalue contextual modes of thought and emotional 
components of reason. Empirical support for this criticism is provided by 
psychological studies. Best known is Carol Gilligan’s (1982) study of 
women’s moral reasoning. Since scientific reason includes normative judg¬ 
ments (e.g., about which is the most interesting or potentially fruitful 
hypothesis or research program to pursue), Gilligan’s work is highly sugges¬ 
tive for feminist thought about scientific knowledge. More recently, the 
analysis by Mary Belenky et al. (1986) of developmental patterns in wom¬ 
en’s thinking about reason and knowledge points to gender bias in philo¬ 
sophic and scientific ideals and suggests its origins in gendered experience. 
I mention these here because it is important to recognize that not all feminist 
thought about science and knowledge, even within what I am calling the 



104 / Sandra Harding 


science traditions, has ended up inside the two feminist theories of knowl¬ 
edge discussed above. 

12. Jane Flax made arguments very close to this in her article in my book 
Discovering Reality (1983). I took her to be developing a kind of feminist 
standpoint theory in my book The Science Question in Feminism (see p. 
151-155). As the passages I cited in the opening section indicate, recently 
she has clearly distinguished her own assumptions from what she takes to 
be central standpoint ones. 

13. I have discussed some of them in The Science Question in Feminism (1986). 
The feminist postmodernists quoted earlier raise others. See also the positive 
discussion of this epistemology’s potential as “the feminist appropriation 
of Lukacs” in Jameson’s article in Rethinking Marxism (1988). 

14. Thus, the standpoint theorists construct exactly the kind of sociology of 
knowledge —not just of error—called for by the “strong programme” in the 
sociology of knowledge (and some of Dorothy Smith’s work predates these 
calls). (See Knowledge and Social Imagery by David Bloor, 1977). But 
they avoid the scientific and a-political (or, rather, conservatively political) 
claims of the strong programme that belief is entirely a consequence of 
social relations: They construct an epistemology, not just a sociology. 

15. However, it does not actually place these relations at the center of its 
theorizing. That is a problem. 

References 

Belenky, M. F. et al. 1986. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of 
Self, Voice, and Mind. New York: Basic Books. 

Bloor, David. 1977. Knowledge and Social Imagery. London: Routledge & 
Kegan Paul. 

Bordo, Susan R. 1987. The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and 
Culture. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 

Di Stefano, Christine. 1987. “Postmodemism/Postfeminism?: The Case of the 
Incredible Shrinking Woman.” Paper read at 1987 meetings of American 
Political Science Association, Chicago, September 3-6, 1987. This is an 
earlier version of “Dilemmas of Difference: Feminism, Maternity, and Post¬ 
modernism” in this book. 

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 1985. Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About 
Women and Men. New York: Basic Books. 

Flax, Jane. 1983. “Political Philosophy and the Patriarchal Unconscious: A 
Psychoanalytic Perspective on Epistemology and Metaphysics,” in Discover¬ 
ing Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Method¬ 
ology and Philosophy of Science. Edited by Sandra Harding and Merrill 
Hintikka. Dordrecht: Reidel Publishing Co., 1983. 

-. 1989. “Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory,” in 

this book. 



Feminism, Science, and the Anti-Enlightenment Critiques / 105 


-Forthcoming, 1990. Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, 

and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West. Berkeley, CA: University 
of California Press. 

Foucault, Michel. 1981. Power!Knowledge. Edited by Colin Gordon. New York: 
Random House. 

Fraser, Nancy, and Linda Nicholson. 1989. “Social Criticism Without Philoso¬ 
phy: An Encounter Between Feminism and Postmodernism,” in this book. 

Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s 
Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Goonatilake, Susantha. 1984. Aborted Discovery: Science and Creativity in the 
Third World. London. Zed Books Ltd. 

Habermas, Jurgen. 1983. “Modernity—An Incomplete Project,” in The Anti- 
Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Edited by Hal Foster. Port Tow¬ 
nsend, WA: Bay Press. See also the collection of essays in Habermas and 
Modernity. Edited by Richard Bernstein. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985. 

Haraway, Donna. 1989. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and 
Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” in this book. 

Harding, Sandra. 1986a. The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca: Cornell 
University Press; Milton Keynes, England: Open University Press. 

-1986b. “The Instability of the Analytical Categories of Feminist Theory.” 

Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 11 (4): 645-664. 

-. 1987a. “Ascetic Intellectual Opportunities: Reply to Alison Wylie.” In 

Science, Morality and Feminist Theory. Edited by M. Hanen and K. Nielsen. 
Calgary: University of Calgary Press. 

- 1987b. “Feminism and Theories of Scientific Knowledge.” APA Femi¬ 
nism and Philosophy Newsletter 1:9-14. 

-., ed. 1987c. Feminism and Methodology: Social Science Issues, 

Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 

-and Merrill Hintikka, eds. 1983. Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspec¬ 
tives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology and Philosophy of Sci¬ 
ence. Dordrecht: Reidel Publishing Co. 

Hartsock, Nancy. 1987. “Rethinking Modernism: Minority vs. Majority Theo¬ 
ries.” Cultural Critique 7:187-206. 

-. 1983. “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Grounds for a Specifi¬ 
cally Feminist Historical Materialism.” In Discovering Reality. Edited by 
S. Harding and M. Hintikka. See also Chapter 10 of N. Hartsock’s Money, 
Sex, and Power. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1985. 

Huyssen, Andreas. 1989 in this book. 

Irigaray, Luce. 1985. The Sex Which Is Not One. Translated by Catherine Porter. 
Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 

Jameson, Fredric. 1988. " History and Class Consciousness as an ‘Unfinished 
Project’.” Rethinking Marxism (1 ):49—72. 



106 / Sandra Harding 


Keller, Evelyn Fox. 1984. Reflections on Gender and Science. New Haven: Yale 
University Press. 

Kuhn, Thomas S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nded. Chicago: 
University of Chicago Press. 

Lloyd, Genevieve. 1984. The Man of Reason: “Male" and “Female ” in Western 
Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1984. The Post-Modern Condition. Minneapolis: Univer¬ 
sity of Minnesota Press. 

MacKinnon, Catharine. 1982-1983. “Feminism, Marxism, Method and The 
State,” Parts 1 & 2. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 7 
(3):515-544 8 (4):635-658. 

Millman, Marcia and Rosabeth Moss Kanter. 1975. Editor’s Introduction in 
Another Voice: Feminist Perspectives on Social Life and Social Science. 
New York: Anchor Books. 

Rodney, Walter. 1982. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Washington, DC: 
Howard University Press. 

Rorty, Richard. 1979. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton 
University Press. 

Rose, Hilary. 1983. “Hand, Brain and Heart: A Feminist Epistemology for the 
Natural Sciences.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 9 (1 ):73- 
90. 

-and Steven Rose, ed. 1979. Ideology oflin the Natural Sciences. Cam¬ 
bridge, MA: Schenkman. 

Ruddick, Sara. 1980. “Maternal Thinking." Feminist Studies 6, (2):342-369. 

Smith, Dorothy. 1974. “Women’s Perspective as a Radical Critique of Sociol¬ 
ogy.” Sociological Inquiry 44:7-13. 

-1987. The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. 

Boston: Northeastern. 

Staples, Robert. 1973. “What is Black Sociology? Toward a Sociology of Black 
Liberation.” In The Death of White Sociology. Edited by J. A. Ladner. New 
York: Random House. 

Van den Daele, W. 1977. “The Social Construction of Science.” In The Social 
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Van Sertima, Ivan. 1986. Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern. New Bruns¬ 
wick, NJ: Transaction Books. 

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and Feminist Theory. Edited by M. Hanen and K. Nielsen. Calgary: Univer¬ 
sity of Calgary Press. 



5 


Epistemologies of Postmodernism: 

A Rejoinder to Jean-Francois Lyotard 

Seyla Benhabib 


In the recent, flourishing debate on the nature and significance of 
postmodernism, architecture seems to occupy a special place. 1 It is tempt¬ 
ing to describe this situation through a Hegelianism: It is as if the Zeitgeist 
of an epoch approaching its end has reached self-consciousness in those 
monuments of modem architecture of steel, concrete, and glass. Contem¬ 
plating itself in its objectifications, Spirit has not “recognized” and thus 
“returned to itself’ but has recoiled in horror from its own products. The 
visible decay of our urban environment, the uncanniness of the modem 
megalopolis, and the general dehumanization of space appear to prove the 
Faustian dream to be a nightmare. The dream of an infinitely striving self, 
unfolding its powers in the process of conquering externality, is one from 
which we have awakened. Postmodernist architecture, whatever other 
sources it borrows its inspiration from, is undoubtedly the message of the 
end of this Faustian dream, which had accompanied the self-understanding 
of the modems from the beginning. 2 

The end of the Faustian dream has brought with it a conceptual and 
semiotic shift in many domains of culture. This shift is not characterized 
by a moral or political critique of the Faustian aspects of modernity, but 
by the questioning of the very conceptual framework that made the Faus¬ 
tian dream possible in the first place. The following statement by Peter 
Eisenman, one of the key figures in the modemist/postmodemist constella¬ 
tion in architecture, captures the elements of this new critique quite 
precisely: 

Architecture since the fifteenth century has been influenced by the 

assumption of a set of symbolic and referential functions. These can be 


1 would like to thank Andreas Huyssen and Wolf Schafer for comments and criticisms. 


107 



108 / Seyla Benhabib 


collectively identified as the classical . . . ‘Reason,’ ‘Representation’ 
and ‘History,’ ‘Reason’ insists that objects be understood as rational 
transformations from a self-evident origin. ‘Representation’ demands 
that objects refer to values or images external to themselves. . . . 
‘History’ assumes that time is made up of isolatable historical moments 
whose essential characteristics can and should be abstracted and repre¬ 
sented. If these classical assumptions are taken together as imperatives 
they force architecture to represent the spirit of its age through a 
rationally motivated and comprehensible sign system. . . . But if these 
‘imperatives’ are simply ‘fictions’ then the classical can be suspended 
and options emerge which have been obscured by classical 
imperatives. . . . 

Eisenman’s statement describes rather accurately the conceptual self¬ 
understanding of postmodernism, not only in architecture, but in contem¬ 
porary philosophy as well. In fact, if one were to substitute the word 
philosophy for architecture in the first paragraph of Eisenman’s statement, 
it could serve as a pithy summary of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmod¬ 
ern Condition: A Report on Knowledge * For Lyotard as well the demise 
of the Faustian ideal signifies the end of the “grand narrative” of the 
modems and of the epistemology of representation on which it has been 
based. “I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates 
itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit 
appeal to some grand narrative,” writes Lyotard, “such as the dialectics 
of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational 
or working subject, or the creation of wealth” (p. xxiii). Like Eisenman, 
in the suspension of the classical, Lyotard sees the emergence of cognitive 
and social options which had been obscured by the “classical imperatives.” 
He defines the new cognitive option variously as “paralogy” (p. 60 ff.), 
“agonistics” (p. 16), and “recognition of the heteromorphous nature of 
language games” (p. 66). The new social option is described as a “tempo¬ 
rary contract,” supplanting permanent institutions in the professional, 
emotional, sexual, cultural, family, and international domains, as well as 
in political affairs (p. 66). 

Lyotard offers these cognitive and social options as alternatives that are 
authentic to the experience of postindustrial societies and to the role of 
knowledge within them. The hold of the classical episteme upon contem¬ 
porary consciousness, however, tends to channel our cognitive as well as 
our practical imagination in two directions. In the first place, society is 
conceived of as a functional whole (p. 11), and the condition of knowledge 
appropriate to it is judged as “performativity.” Performativity is the view 
that knowledge is power, that modem science is to be legitimated through 
the increase in technological capacity, efficiency, control, and output it 
enables (p. 47). The ideal of the theorists of performativity, from Hobbes 



Epistemologies of Postmodernism / 109 


to Luhmann, is to reduce the fragility intrinsic to the legitimation of 
power by minimizing risk, unpredictability, and complexity. Not only is 
knowledge power, but power generates access to knowledge, thus prepar¬ 
ing for itself a self-perpetuating basis of legitimacy. “Power . . . legiti¬ 
mates science and the law on the basis of their efficiency, and legitimates 
this efficiency on the basis of science and law. . . . Thus the growth of 
power, and its self-legitimation, are now taking the route of data storage 
and accessibility, and the operativity of information” (p. 47). 

The second alternative is to view society as divided into two, as an 
alienated, bifurcated totality, in need of reunification. The corresponding 
epistemic vision is critical as opposed to functional knowledge. Critical 
knowledge is in the service of the subject; its goal is not the legitimation 
of power but the enabling of empowerment (pp. 12 ff.). It seeks not to 
enhance the efficiency of the apparatus but to further the self-formation 
of humanity, not to reduce complexity but to create a world in which a 
reconciled humanity recognizes itself. For Lyotard, the contemporary 
representative of this nineteenth-century ideal, bom out of the imagination 
of a German thinker, Wilhelm von Humboldt, is Jurgen Habermas (p. 
32). Had it been von Humboldt’s ideal to have philosophy restore unity 
to learning via the development of a language game linking all the sciences 
together as moments in the becoming of Spirit (p. 33), it is Habermas’s 
purpose to formulate a metadiscourse which is “universally valid for 
language games” (p. 65). The goal of such discourse is not so much the 
BiIdung of the German nation, as it had been for von Humboldt, but 
the attainment of consensus, transparency, and reconciliation. Lyotard 
comments: “The cause is good, but the argument is not. Consensus has 
become an outmoded and suspect value. We must . . . arrive at an idea 
and practice of justice that is not linked to that of consensus” (p. 66). 

Can Lyotard convince? Is his project to formulate the outlines of a 
postmodern episteme, beyond the dualism of functional and critical knowl¬ 
edge, beyond instrumental reason and critical theory, viable? What are 
the epistemological options opened by the demise of the classical episteme 
of representation? 

The Crisis of the Representational Episteme 

Modem philosophy began with the loss of the world. 5 The decision of 
the autonomous bourgeois subject to take nothing and no authority for 
granted, whose content and strictures had not been subjected to rigorous 
examination, and that had not withstood the test of “clarity and distinct¬ 
ness,” began with the withdrawal from the world. It was still possible for 
Descartes in the seventeenth century to describe this withdrawal in the 
language of Stoicism and Spanish Jesuit philosophy as an ethical and 



110/ Seyla Benhabib 


religious gesture, either as a “suspension” of the involvement of the self 
with the world (Stoicism) or as the withdrawal of the soul to a communion 
with itself (Jesuit teaching of meditation). These were stages on the road 
to an equilibrium with the cosmos or necessary for the purging of the soul 
in preparation for the truth of God. The future development of modem 
epistemology succeeded in repressing this ethical and cultural moment to 
the point where the typical reductions on which the classical episteme of 
representation rested could emerge. The corporeal, ethico-moral self was 
reduced to a pure subject of knowledge, to consciousness, or to mind. 
The object of knowledge was reduced to “matters of fact” and “relations 
of ideas,” or to “sensations” and “concepts.” The question of classical 
epistemology from Descartes to Hume, from Locke to Kant was how to 
make congruous the order of representations in consciousness with the 
order of representations outside the self. Caught in the prison-house of its 
own consciousness, the modem epistemological subject tried to recover 
the world it had well lost. 6 The options were not many: Either one reassured 
oneself that the world would be gained by the direct and immediate 
evidence of the senses (empiricism) or one insisted that the rationality of 
the creator or the harmony of mind and nature would guarantee the 
correspondence between the two orders of representations (rationalism). 

Whether empiricist or rationalist, modem epistemologists agreed that 
the task of knowledge, whatever its origins, was to build an adequate 
representation of things. In knowledge, mind had to “mirror” nature. 7 
Charles Taylor points out, “When we hold that having X is having a 
(correct) representation of X, one of the things we establish is the neat 
separation of ideas, thoughts, descriptions and the like, on the one hand, 
and what these ideas, etc. are about on the other.” 8 Actually, modem 
epistemology operated with a threefold distinction: the order of representa¬ 
tions in our consciousness (ideas and sensations); the signs through which 
these “private” orders were made public, namely, words; and that of which 
our representations were representations, and to which they referred. 9 In 
this tradition, meaning was defined as “designation”; the meaning of a 
word was what it designates, while the primary function of language was 
denotative, namely, to inform us about objectively existing states of 
affairs. The classical episteme of representation presupposed a spectator 
conception of the knowing self, a designative theory of meaning, and a 
denotative theory of language. 

Already in the last century three directions of critique of the classical 
episteme, leading to its eventual rejection, formed themselves. Stylizing 
somewhat, the first can be described as the critique of the modem epistemic 
subject, the second as the critique of the modem epistemic object, and the 
third as the critique of the modem concept of the sign. 

The critique of the Cartesian, spectator conception of the subject begins 



Epistemologies of Postmodernism /111 


with German Idealism and continues with Marx and Freud to Horkheimer in 
1937 and to Habermas in Knowledge and Human Interests. 10 This tradition 
substitutes for the spectator model of the self the view of the active, produc¬ 
ing , fabricating humanity, creating the conditions of objectivity confronting 
it through its own historical activity. The Hegelian and Marxist tradition 
also shows that the Cartesian ego is not a self-transparent entity and that the 
epistemic self cannot reach full autonomy as long as the historical origin and 
social constitution of the clear and distinct ideas it contemplates remain a 
mystery. This critique joins hands with the Freudian one which likewise 
shows that the self is not transparent to itself, for it is not “master in its own 
home” (Herr imeigenenHaus). It is controlled by desires, needs, andforces 
whose effects upon it shape both the contents of its clear and distinct ideas, 
as well as its capacity to organize them. The historical and psychoanalytic 
critique of the Cartesian ego sees the task of reflection neither as the with¬ 
drawal from the world nor as access to clarity and distinctness, but as the 
rendering conscious of those unconscious forces of history, society, and 
the psyche. Although generated by the subject, these necessarily escape its 
memory, control, and conduct. The goal of reflection is emancipation from 
self-incurred bondage. 

The second line of criticism can be most closely associated with the 
names of Neitzsche, Heidegger, and Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic 
of Enlightenment. The modem episteme is viewed as an episteme of 
domination. For Nietzsche modem science universalizes Cartesian doubt. 
Modem knowledge divides the world into the realm of appearance on the 
one hand and that of essence, or things-in-themselves, on the other.' 1 This 
dualistic vision is internalized by the subject of knowledge who in turn is 
split into body and mind, the senses and the conceptual faculty. Nietzsche 
has no difficulty in showing that in this sense modem science signifies the 
triumph of Platonism. Heidegger drives the error underlying the modem 
episteme of representation further back than its Platonic origins, to a 
conception of being as presence, as what is available and present to the 
consciousness of the subject. 12 This conception of being as presence-to 
reduces the manyness of the appearances by making them available to a 
sovereign consciousness. By reducing appearances to what is present to 
it, this consciousness attains the option of controlling them. In a spirit that 
is quite akin to Heidegger’s in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno 
and Horkheimer argue that it is the “concept,” the very unit of thought in 
the Western tradition that imposes homogeneity and identity upon the 
heterogeneity of material. This drive for identity of conceptual thought 
culminates in the technical triumph of Western ratio, which can only know 
things in that it comes to dominate them. “The Enlightenment relates to 
things as the dictator to humans.” 13 

The third tradition of criticism is initiated by Ferdinand de Saussure 



112 / Seyla Benhabib 


and Charles Sanders Peirce and given sharper contours by Frege and 
Wittgenstein in our century. They argue that it is impossible to make sense 
of meaning, reference, and language in general when the view of linguistic 
signs as “private marks” 14 prevails. Instead, the public and shared character 
of language is a beginning point. Both de Saussure and Peirce point out 
that there is no natural relation between a sound, the word it represents 
in a language, and the content it refers to. For Peirce, the relation of the 
sign, of which words are but one species, to the signified is mediated by 
the interpretant. 15 For de Saussure, it is within a system of differential 
relations that certain sounds get arbitrarily frozen to stand for words. 16 
Language is that sedimented set of relations which stands ideally behind 
the set of enunciations called parole. This move in the analysis of language 
from the private to the public, from consciousness to sign, from the 
individual word to a system of relations among linguistic signs, is followed 
by Frege and Wittgenstein, insofar as they too argue that the unit of 
reference is not the word but the sentence (Frege) and that meaning can 
only be understood by analyzing the multiple contexts of use (Witt¬ 
genstein). 

The epistemological juncture at which Lyotard operates is characterized 
by the triumph of this third tradition. Whether in analytic philosophy, 
contemporary hermeneutics, or French poststructuralism, the paradigm of 
language has replaced the paradigm of consciousness. This shift has meant 
that the focus is no longer on the epistemic subject nor on the private 
contents of its consciousness but on the public, signifying activities of a 
collection of subjects. Not only has there been a shift in the size of 
the interrogated epistemic unit from idea, sensation, and concept to the 
threefold character of the sign as signifier, signified, and interpretant 
(Peirce), but also to language and parole (Saussure) or to language games 
as “forms of life” (Wittgenstein). The identity of the epistemic subject has 
changed as well: The bearer of the sign cannot be an isolated self— 
there is no private language, as Wittgenstein has observed; either it is a 
community of selves whose identity extends as far as their horizon of 
interpretations (Gadamer) or it is a social community of actual language 
users (Wittgenstein). This enlargement of the relevant epistemic subject 
is one option. A second option, followed by French structuralism, is to 
deny that, in order to make sense of the epistemic object, one need appeal 
to an epistemic subject at all. The subject is replaced by a system of 
structures, oppositions, and differances which, to be intelligible, need not 
be viewed as products of a living subjectivity at all. 17 

Lyotard wants to convince that the destruction of the episteme of 
representation allows only one option, namely, a recognition of the irrec¬ 
oncilability and incommensurability of language games and the acceptance 
that only local and context-specific criteria of validity can be formulated. 



Epistemologies of Postmodernism / 113 


One must accept, in other words, an “agonistics” of language: “ ... to 
speak is to fight, in the sense of playing, and speech-acts fall within the 
domain of a general agonistics” (p. 10). This cognitive option yields 
a “polytheism of values,” and a politics of justice beyond consensus, 
characterized by Lyotard vaguely as the “temporary contract.” 

The shift in contemporary philosophy from consciousness to language, 
from the order of representations to that of speech-acts, from denotation 
to performance need not lead to a polytheism of values and ultimately to 
Wittgenstein’s dictum that “philosophy leaves everything as it is. ls In 
order to see that the decline of the episteme of representation allows 
another alternative besides Lyotard’s polytheism and agonistics of lan¬ 
guage, it is necessary to examine the self-contradictoriness of Lyotard’s 
program more carefully. Lyotard wants to deny the choice between instru¬ 
mental and critical reason, between performativity and emancipation. But 
his agonistic philosophy either leads to a polytheism of values, from 
which standpoint the principle of performativity or emancipation cannot be 
criticized, or this philosophy does not remain wholly polytheistic but 
privileges one domain of discourse and knowledge over others as a hidden 
criterion. The choice is still between an uncritical polytheism and a self- 
conscious recognition of the need for criteria of validity, and the attempt 
to reflexively ground them. Lyotard cannot escape the Scylla of uncritical 
polytheism nor the Charybdis of criteriological dogmatism. 

Truth: The Future of an Illusion? 

The differences between Lyotard’s agonistics of language and the pro¬ 
gram of universal or “transcendental pragmatics,” formulated by Apel and 
Habermas serve as a good beginning point in developing this dilemma. 19 
Insofar as both Lyotard’s agonistics and the program of pragmatics reject 
the denotative function of language, they signal a turn to its performative 
aspects. This turn is accompanied by a redefinition of knowledge as 
argumentative, discursive practice. Whereas Habermas distinguishes be¬ 
tween the “know-how” embedded in the pre-theoretical life-world and the 
implicit rules of communicative competence which guide each competent 
speaker of a language, Lyotard emphasizes the “narrativity” of a mode of 
knowledge repressed and marginalized by science. He defines this as a 
“know-how, knowing how to live, how to listen” ( savoir-faire, savoir- 
vivre, savoir-ecouter, p. 19). For Habermas, discursive knowledge is 
continuous with everyday communicative practices; already everyday 
communication functions as its own reflexive medium through acts of 
interrogation, disagreement, questioning, and puzzling. In discourses we 
do not enter a Platonic heaven of ideas, but we “bracket” certain constraints 
of space and time, suspend belief in the truth of propositions, in the 



114/ Seyla Benhabib 


rightness of norms, and the truthfulness of our partners, and examine 
everyday convictions in which we have lost belief. For Lyotard, by 
contrast, “discourse” and “narrative knowledge” are radically discontinu¬ 
ous. Narrative knowledge appears to be in need of no legitimation. Lyotard 
describes the pragmatics of narrative knowledge such that it eo ipso seems 
to preclude the kind of questioning, puzzling, and disagreement which 
everyday communicative practices in fact always already allow (p. 27). 

Although Lyotard describes his philosophy of language as “pragmatics” 
as well—albeit an agonistic one—“rhetorics” would be a more adequate 
characterization of the view he develops. Both pragmatics and rhetorics 
emphasize the performative as opposed to denotative uses of language, 
and both take as unit of analysis not the proposition but the speech- 
act. The pragmatic theory of speech-acts maintains that every act of 
communication is directed toward certain “validity claims” ( Geltungsans - 
priiche). Validity claims can be formulated with respect to the truth 
of statements, the rightness of norms, and the truthfulness of speaking 
subjects. 20 By contrast, the rhetorics of language Lyotard espouses does 
not distinguish between raising a validity claim and forcing someone to 
believe in something, between the coordination of action among partici¬ 
pants on the basis of conviction generated through agreement and the 
manipulative influencing of the behavior of others. Lyotard misses the 
boat when he accuses Habermas of reducing all language games to the 
metagame of truth. In the theory of universal pragmatics, truth claims are 
one among two other validity claims, namely, rightness and truthfulness, 
and are not privileged in any way. 21 The issue then is not whether Habermas 
privileges the metagame of truth, but which view of language is more 
adequate: one that sees language as a cognitive medium through which 
norms of action coordination, patterns of interpretation of cultures, and 
frameworks for the exploration of our needs and desires are generated, 22 
or a view that regards language as an evocative medium, in which validity 
and force, reasoned belief and manipulated opinion, can no longer be 
distinguished? 

Is this a fair charge against Lyotard? Let us look more closely. A long 
passage in which Lyotard explains his pragmatics of language is revealing 
in this regard: 

A denotative utterance such as “The university is sick,” made in the 
context of a conversation or an interview, positions its sender (the 
person who utters the statement), its addressee (the person who receives 
it), and its referent (what statement it deals with) in a specific way; the 
utterance places (and exposes) the sender in the position of “knower” 

... (If) we consider a declaration such as “The university is open,” 
pronounced by a dean or rector at convocation, it is clear that the 



Epistemologies of Postmodernism / 115 


previous specifications no longer apply. . . . The distinctive feature of 
this second, “performative” utterance is that its effect upon the recipient 
coincided with its enunciation. . . . That this is so is not subject to 
discussion or verification on the part of the addressee, who is immedi¬ 
ately placed within the new context created by the utterance. As for the 
sender, he must be invested with the authority to make such a statement. 
Actually, we could say it the other way around: the sender is dean or 
rector—that is, he is invested with the authority to make this kind of 
statement—only insofar as he can directly affect both the referent (the 
university) and the addressee (the university staff) in the manner l have 
indicated, (p. 9, my emphasis) 

This lengthy passage in which Lyotard explicates the pragmatic dimen¬ 
sion of language games betrays that he no longer distinguishes between 
power and validity. The “sender” is defined as the one invested with the 
authority to make a certain kind of statement, but then this authority is 
said to be invested in him “only insofar as he can affect both the referent 
. . . and the addressee.” But surely the investment of authority in someone 
or in an institution and the effective exercise of this authority are two 
different things. The first is a matter of validity, the second a matter of 
power. Just as the one invested with authority may not be effective in 
exercising it, there may be others effective in exercising authority but not 
invested with the right to exercise it. Lyotard seems to imply that only the 
one who effectively exercises authority is also invested with the title to it. 
If this is so, however, all authority would be charismatic and dependent, 
that is, upon the individual qualities and characteristics of a special individ¬ 
ual, and not liable to justification through procedure, rules, and grounds. 
Power and validity, might and right would then be indistinguishable. 

Lyotard writes, “the utterance places (and exposes) the sender in the 
position of the ‘knower’ ... the addressee is put in the position of having 
to give or refuse his assent.” (p. 9). The difference between universal 
and transcendental pragmatics and Lyotard’s agonistics turns around the 
question as to how this “giving” or “refusing” of assent is to be understood. 
Lyotard regards this to be a consequence of a language game with many 
moves and does not specify the process whereby assent is generated or 
refusal obtained. But surely there is a distinction between agreeing and 
giving in; consenting and being persuaded to do so; presenting reasons to 
convince and blackmailing; refusing and being obstinate. Lyotard actually 
does not eliminate these distinctions altogether, for he writes, “to speak 
is to fight, in the sense of playing, and speech-acts fall within the domain 
of a general agonistics. This does not necessarily mean that one plays in 
order to win” (p. 10, my emphasis). The question is, why not? Why isn’t 
language simply a sphere through which the universal power game is 
carried out? Why isn’t all conversation seduction? All consensus conquest? 



116/ Seyla Benhabib 


All agreement the result of delusion, of a narcissisme a deux, as Lacan 
would have it? 23 Despite a certain ambivalence, Lyotard cannot escape 
these conclusions. 

The line between truth and deception, consensus and coercion disap¬ 
pears in Lyotard’s agonistics, for, to speak with J. L. Austin, Lyotard 
cannot differentiate between illocutionary and perlocutionary speech-acts. 
According to Austin, “the illocutionary act . . . has a certain force in 
saying something; the perlocutionary act . . . is the achieving of certain 
effects by saying something” 24 (my emphasis). For example, in saying I 
would shoot someone, I threaten them (illocutionary act); by saying I 
would shoot someone, 1 alarm them (perlocutionary). The consequences 
attained by an illocutionary act can be stated at the beginning of a statement 
in the form of an explicit intention, “I threatened to shoot him”; in the 
case of a perlocutionary statement, however, the speaker can only attain 
the desired effect as long as his or her intentions are not explicitly made 
part of the speech-act. 25 If it is my goal to alarm someone, I do not begin 
a statement by saying, “1 want to alarm you that.” In this case my act 
would be illocutionary and intended with the purpose of apprehending 
you about a certain state of affairs. This in turn leaves open the possibility 
that you may assent or refuse to respond in the way I desire you to. In 
perlocutionary acts, however, the speaker wants to generate a certain 
effect upon the hearer regardless of the assent or dissent of the latter. In 
fact, it is necessary to achieve certain effects that the intentions of the 
speaker not be revealed. For Lyotard, the primary use of speech is 
perlocutionary. The use of speech to affect and influence the hearer, for 
whatever purposes, is the paradigm. But then the agonistics of language 
can no longer distinguish between manipulative and nonmanipulative uses 
of speech. The consequence of this position is that not truth alone, but all 
claims to validity are at best pious wishes, at worst illusions fabricated to 
deceive. 

It is not difficult to show that any theory which denies the claims to 
truth and the possibility of distinguishing between it and sheer manipula¬ 
tive rhetoric would be involved in a “performative self-contradiction.” 26 
This may not be terribly difficult, but it does not settle the issue either. 
For, from Nietzsche’s aphorisms, to Heidegger’s poetics, to Adorno’s 
stylistic configurations, and to Derrida’s deconstructions, we have exam¬ 
ples of thinkers who accept this performative self-contradiction and who 
self-consciously draw the consequences from it by seeking a new way of 
writing and communicating. That, following this tradition, Lyotard has 
not experimented with style in The Postmodern Condition may be more 
the result of accident than of conceptual consistency. We must seek to 
approach Lyotard’s presuppositions through yet another route. 



Epistemologies of Postmodernism / 117 


Science: The Same Old Dream 

In a recent article on “Habermas and Lyotard on Postmodemity,” Rich¬ 
ard Rorty has described the impasse between Habermas and Lyotard as 
follows: “To put the opposition in another way, the French writers whom 
Habermas criticizes are willing to drop the opposition between ‘true 
consensus’ and ‘false consensus,’ or between ‘validity’ and ‘power,’ in 
order not to have to tell a metanarrative in order to explicate ‘true’ or 
‘valid.’ But Habermas thinks that if we do drop the idea of the ‘better 
argument’ ... we shall have only a ‘context-dependent’ sort of social 
criticism.” 27 Rorty observes that Lyotard would respond to Habermas’s 
claim that even the sciences are propelled beyond themselves toward self¬ 
reflection, by responding that “Habermas misunderstands the character of 
modem science.” 28 Indeed, Lyotard’s discussion of postmodern science 
is intended to accomplish a most peculiar function. This is also the point 
at which we see that Lyotard avoids the performative self-contradiction 
of stylistic self-deconstruction a la Derrida, by falling into dogmatism, 
that is, by privileging a knowledge-practice above others to serve as their 
criterion while failing to justify this explicitly. 

Drawing from such diverse sources as Godel’s metamathematical re¬ 
search, quantum mechanics, microphysics, and catastrophe theories, in 
an obscure discussion, Lyotard attempts to show that the pragmatics of 
postmodern scientific knowledge has little to do with performativity or 
instrumental criteria (p. 54). 29 Lyotard writes, “Postmodern science ... is 
theorizing its own evolution as discontinuous, catastrophic, nonrectifiable, 
and paradoxical. It is changing the meaning of the word knowledge, while 
expressing how such a change can take place. It is provoking not the 
known, but the unknown” (p. 60, my emphasis). This epistemic privileg¬ 
ing of mathematical and natural science is problematical. It avoids a series 
of questions which any serious epistemological theory would have to 
face. The distinction between the natural, social, and human sciences 
(Geisteswissenschaften ) is completely ignored. It remains to be shown 
that problems of concept formation, formulation of lawlike generalities, 
procedures of verification, the interaction between pre-theoretical and 
theoretical cognition in the social and human sciences can be illuminated 
by the model of postmodern knowledge Lyotard proposes. 30 The privileg¬ 
ing of developments in mathematical and natural science does not break 
with the tradition of modem science which simply ignores the knowledge 
claims and problems of the human and social sciences. More significant 
is the question, “What is the relationship between the antimodel of prag¬ 
matics of science, and society? Is it applicable to the vast clouds of 
language material constituting a society? ... Is it an impossible ideal of 



118/ Seyla Benhabib 


an open community?” (p. 64). Lyotard’s answer to this question is 
incoherent. On the one hand, he admits that social and scientific 
pragmatics are different, for social pragmatics is not as simple as 
scientific pragmatics, “but is a monster formed by the interweaving of 
heteromorphous classes of utterances” (p. 65). On the other hand, the 
postmodern epistemology of science is said to approach the practice of 
narrativity (le petit recit). In other words, either Lyotard privileges 
natural and mathematical science, thus falling into traditional scientific 
dogmatism, or there is a criterion of knowledge, transcending modem 
natural science, and with reference to which science itself is legitimized, 
and which in turn needs to be defended. It would appear that narrative 
knowledge is such a criterion. 

Indeed, Rorty as well interprets Lyotard as wanting to diminish the 
distance between scientific and narrative knowledge. 31 In Lyotard’s con¬ 
struction of narrativity, Rorty discovers affinities with his own contextual- 
pragmatism. Closing fronts with Lyotard, he writes that “the trouble with 
Habermas is not so much that he provides a meta-narrative of emancipation 
as that he feels the need to legitimize, that he is not content to let the 
narratives which hold our culture together do their stuff. He is scratching 
where it does not itch.” 32 Rorty’s argument is revealing for two reasons. 
First, it indicates that epistemological questions flow into assessments of 
culture and society. Whether “the narratives which hold our culture to¬ 
gether do their stuff’ is an empirical question. Likewise, whether critical 
theory “scratches where it does not itch” depends upon our understanding 
of the problems, struggles, crises, conflicts, and miseries of the present. 
Epistemological issues are indeed closely linked with moral and political 
ones. 

In the second place, we must note that Lyotard himself is not as sanguine 
as Rorty about the validity and continuing role of narrative in modem 
society and culture. Narrative knowledge, far from being an alternative to 
the modem scientific one, is sometimes described as if it were “premodem” 
knowledge, a historically lost mode of thought. 33 Yet, narrative knowledge 
is also viewed as the “other” of discursive knowledge—not its historical 
past but its contemporaneous other. Narrative knowledge, to use a phrase 
of Bloch’s, is the “non-contemporaneous contemporary” of discursive 
knowledge. The scientist “classifies them as belonging to a different 
mentality: savage, primitive, underdeveloped, backward, alienated, com¬ 
posed of opinions, customs, authority, prejudice, ignorance, ideology. 
Narratives are fables, myths, legends, fit only for women and children” 
(p. 27). Is the meaning of Lyotard’s postmodernist epistemology then a 
gesture of solidarity with the oppressed? A gesture toward the recognition 
of the otherness of the other? This may seem so, but Lyotard constructs 
the epistemology of narrative knowledge in such a way that it can no 



Epistemologies of Postmodernism / 119 

longer challenge scientific knowledge, let alone provide a criterion trans¬ 
cending it. Narrative knowledge belongs to the ethnological museum of 
the past. 

“Narrative knowledge,” writes Lyotard, “does not give a priority to 
the question of its own legitimation in that it certifies itself in 
the pragmatics of its own transmission without having recourse to 
argumentation and proof’ (p. 27). This global characterization of 
narrative knowledge as prerefiexive, as a self-sustaining whole, flattens 
the internal contradictions and tensions which affect narrative no less 
than discursive practices. 34 It also implies that all change in this episteme 
must come from without, through violence. Such an episteme has no 
self-propelling or self-correcting mechanism. But, in fact, this is to 
condemn the subjects of this episteme to ahistoricity, to deny that they 
inhabit the same place with us. We do not interact with them as equals, 
we inhabit a space in which we observe them as ethnologists and 
anthropologists, and we treat them with distance and indifference. But 
if this is not so, if indeed narrative knowledge is the other of our mode 
of knowledge, then Lyotard must admit that narrative and scientific 
knowledge are not merely incommensurable, but that they can and do 
clash, and that sometimes the outcome is less than certain. 35 To admit 
this possibility would mean that “narrative” and “discursive” practices 
occupy the same epistemic space, that both raise claims to validity, 
and that an argumentative exchange between them is not only possible 
but desirable. You cannot respect the otherness of the other if you deny 
the other the right to enter into a conversation with you, if you do not 
discard the objective indifference of an ethnologist and engage with the 
other as an equal. Instead of reckoning with this dilemma of recognition 
and distance, acceptance and tolerance, Lyotard agrees with Wittgenstein 
that philosophy must leave everything as is: 

It is therefore impossible to judge the existence or validity of narrative 
knowledge on the basis of scientific knowledge and vice versa: the 
relevant criteria are different. All we can do is gaze in wonderment at 
the diversity of discursive species, just as we do at the diversity of plant 
and animal species. Lamenting the “loss of meaning” in postmodemity 
boils down to mourning the fact that knowledge is no longer principally 
narrative. Such a reaction does not necessarily follow. Neither does 
an attempt to derive or engender (using operators like development) 
scientific knowledge from narrative knowledge, as if the former con¬ 
tained the latter in an embryonic state (pp. 26-27). 


If we cannot lament the passing away of narrative knowledge nor 
indicate a possible line of transition from one knowledge type to another. 



120 / Seyla Benhabib 


then in fact narrative knowledge possesses no epistemic priority to scien¬ 
tific knowledge. Equipped with “undecidables, ‘fracta’ catastrophes and 
pragmatic paradoxes,” we can face the brave, new world of postmodemity. 

Thus, in the final analysis, Lyotard avoids performative self-contradic¬ 
tion, or simply incoherence, by privileging one practice of knowledge to 
serve as a criterion over others. This criterion is provided by the model 
of a discontinuous, fractured, and self-destabilizing epistemology, said to 
characterize modem mathematical and natural science. We may have 
woken from the Faustian dream but not from the scientific one! 

Let us return once more to the question, what are the options opened 
in the present by the demise of the episteme of representation? 

The Politics of Postmodernism 

As Fredric Jameson has remarked, “The problem of postmodernism 
. . . is at one and the same time an aesthetic and a political one. The 
various positions which can logically be taken on it, whatever terms they 
are couched in, can always be shown to articulate visions of history, in 
which the evaluation of the social moment in which we live today is 
the object of an essentially political affirmation or repudiation.” 36 Jean- 
Francois Lyotard’s political trajectory led him from the Socialisme ou 
Barbarie group to a farewell to Marx and Freud and to the embracing of 
Nietzsche in Economie Libidinale (1974). Casting aside the mask of the 
social critic as simply a disguise for clerical and Christian values, Lyotard 
put on “the mask of paganism, polytheism.” 37 “So you would challenge 
Spinozist or Nietzschean ethics, which separates the movements of being- 
more and those of being-less, of action and reaction?—Yes, but let us be 
aware of an entire morality and an entire politics, with their sages, mili¬ 
tants, courts and jails, taking advantage of these dichotomies to appear 
again. . . . We do not speak as liberators of desire.” 38 

Lyotard writes as a disillusioned Marxist, as one who has discovered 
that the grand metanarrative of history leads to an “entire morality and an 
entire politics.” Lyotard prefers the Spinozist or Nietzschean conatus of 
being, the drive of the will to preserve itself, to the republic of virtue and 
terror. In fact, for Lyotard this choice between a polytheism of desire and 
a republic of terror appears so compelling that no one who has ever spoken 
in the name of humanity, history, emancipation, and unity can escape its 
curse. Terror did not begin with the citizen’s committees of the French 
Revolution nor with the banning of the Mensheviks and Social Revolution¬ 
aries from the revolutionary Dumas. No, it is not Pol Pot or Stalin, but 
Kant and Hegel who lie at its origin. This total loss of historical perspective 
in the rhetoric of disillusionment leads Lyotard to finish his essay “What 
is Postmodernism?” on the following note: 



Epistemologies of Postmodernism / 121 


“Finally, it must be clear that it is our business not to supply reality but 
to invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be presented. And 
it is not to be expected that this task will effect the last reconciliation 
between language games . . . and that only the transcendental illusion 
(that of Hegel) can hope to totalize then into a real unity. But Kant also 
knew that the price to pay for such an illusion is terror. The nineteenth 
and twentieth centuries have given us as much terror as we can take. 

We have paid a high enough price for the nostalgia of the whole and 
the one, for the reconciliation of the concept and the sensible, of the 
transparent and communicable experience. Under the general demand 
for slackening and for appeasement, we can hear the mutterings of the 
desire for a return of terror, for the realization of the fantasy to seize 
reality. The answer is: Let us wage a war on totality; let us witness to 
the unpresentable, let us activate the differences and save the honor of 
the name” (p. 82). 

Surely, Lyotard knows that under the heading of “Absolute Freedom 
and Terror,” Hegel in Chapter 6 of the Phenomenology of Spirit provided 
one of the most brilliant discussions of terror in the history of modern 
political thought. 30 Surely, he also knows (or should know) that Habermas 
and Wellmer, whom he accuses of propagating a “nostalgia for the whole 
and the one,” are not German neo-Romantics, but thinkers who have 
insisted upon the need to revitalize whatever fragile tradition of participa¬ 
tory, civil-libertarian, democratic resources the Federal German Republic 
possesses. Why then this misunderstanding? What is at stake? 

As with the crisis of the representational episteme, the demise of the 
metanarrative of traditional Marxism suggests diverse possibilities, among 
which the return to Nietzsche and Spinoza is one among many, and 
not the most compelling one. Whereas the demise of the episteme of 
representation initiated a shift from the philosophy of consciousness to 
the philosophy of language, from denotation to performance, from the 
proposition to the speech-act, the demise of the metanarrative of traditional 
Marxism opens the possibility of post-Marxist radical, democratic politics. 
The issue is whether the conceptual polytheism and agonistics proposed 
by Lyotard aids in this project or whether indeed under the guise of 
postmodernism, a “young conservatism” 40 is not establishing itself among 
the avant-garde of the 1980s. 

Lyotard’s project is ambivalent. His defense of the morally uncompro¬ 
mising gesture of the aesthetic avant-garde, his insistence upon the spirit 
of innovation, experimentation, play, and his call “to activate differences 
and save the honor of the name” (p. 82) could be constituents of a post- 
Marxist radical, democratic politics. Indeed, The Postmodern Condition 
intends to sketch “the outline of a politics that would respect both the 
desire for justice and the desire for the unknown” (p. 67). Yet, insisting 



122 / Seyla Benhabib 


upon the incommensurability of language games, in the name of polythe¬ 
ism, may generate moral and political indifference; the call for innovation, 
experimentation, and play may be completely dissociated from social 
reform and institutional practice, and the activation of differences may 
not amount to a democratic respect of the right of the other to be, but to 
a conservative plea to place the other, because of her otherness, outside 
the pale of our common humanity and mutual responsibility. 

The moral debate between Lyotard and the tradition of critical theory 
concerns the nature of the minimum cognitive and moral commitments 
necessary to keep the fronts clear between a post-Marxist radical, demo¬ 
cratic politics and a postmodernist, young conservatism. Critical social 
theory at the present defines these cognitive and moral criteria as the 
defense of a communicative, discursive concept of reason, the acceptance 
that knowledge should serve moral autonomy, and the recognition that 
intentions of the good life cannot be dissociated from the discursive 
practice of seeking understanding ( Verstandigung ) among equals in a 
process of communication free from domination. Admittedly, whether a 
nonfoundationalist justification of these commitments, which also avoids 
the metanarratives which Lyotard so effectively dismantles, is possible 
needs to be investigated. This is surely Lyotard’s challenge to the program 
of a critical social theory at the present. Only Lyotard’s agonistic theory 
of language and paralogistic theory of legitimation cannot serve as a basis 
for a post-Marxian radical, democratic politics. The political alternatives 
that follow from Lyotard’s epistemology are twofold: The first is a vaguely 
defined neoliberal pluralism; the second, a contextual pragmatism. 

Lyotard ends his essay on the postmodern condition with a plea to “give 
the public free access to memory and data banks” (p. 67). This is justified 
on the grounds that it would prevent the total computerization of society 
and supply groups “discussing metaprescriptives” with the information 
they need to make knowledgeable decisions. “Language games would 
then be games of perfect information at any moment. But they would also 
be non-zero sum games” (p. 67). Despite Lyotard’s caveat that his task is 
not to supply reality with models but “to invent allusions to the conceivable 
which cannot be presented” (p. 81), the reader might well want to know 
who these groups discussing metaprescriptives are. Are they social move¬ 
ments, citizens’ groups, institutions, interest groups, or lobbies? How far 
would the demand “to give the public free access to memory and data 
banks” go? Can IBM or any other multinational corporation democratize 
its trade secrets and technical information? Is the military likely to democ¬ 
ratize its procedures of acquiring, processing, and storing information? It 
is not incumbent upon Lyotard to provide a blueprint of the society of the 
future, but this image of a society with free access to data banks on the 
part of competing groups whose identity remains unclear is hardly “the 



Epistemologies of Postmodernism / 123 


outline of a politics that would respect both the desire for justice and the 
desire for the unknown.” Lyotard ends up with a neoliberal interest group 
pluralism plus the democratization of computers. 41 

Surely, there is much in the traditional liberal conceptions of pluralism, 
tolerance, and the public competition of ideals that would need to be 
incorporated into a post-Marxist radical, democratic politics. Yet, the 
difficulty with political liberalism, old and new, is the neglect of the 
structural sources of inequality, influence, resource, and power among 
competing groups. In the absence of radical, democratic measures redress¬ 
ing economic, social, and cultural inequalities and forms of subordination, 
the pluralistic vision of groups Lyotard proposes remains naive. It would 
fail to redress the plight of those for whom the question of the democratiza¬ 
tion of information is a luxury, simply because, as marginalized groups 
in our societies, they fail even to have access to organizational let alone 
informational resources. At the present, these groups include increasing 
numbers of women, minorities, foreigners, unemployed youth, and the 
elderly. 

Lyotard’s neoliberal interest group pluralism is naive in yet another 
way. The assumption that language games would be games of perfect 
information suggests that language games do not compete, struggle with, 
or contradict one another, not in the sense of jousting in a tournament, 
but in the actual sense of struggling to delegitimize, overpower, and 
silence the language game of the other. To take a concrete example: 
Lyotard cannot maintain that the current attempt of conservative, pro-life 
groups to establish a “new reverence for life and creation,” to deny the 
moral legitimacy of abortion, to even ask science to provide exact criteria 
as to when the fetus becomes a person, are “narratives” in our culture 
that point to a happy polytheism of language games. The polytheism of 
language games either assumes that culture and society are harmonious 
wholes or that the struggles within them are plays only. But there are 
times when philosophy cannot afford to be a “gay science,” for reality 
itself becomes deadly serious. To deny that the play of language games 
may not turn into a matter of life and death and that the intellectual cannot 
remain the priest of many gods but must take a stance is cynical. 

The second political gesture which follows from Lyotard’s agonistics 
of language games was described as “contextual-pragmatist.” Actually, it 
is Richard Rorty who articulates this position most clearly. His view, 
however, is a perfectly logical consequence of Lyotard’s claim that “narra¬ 
tives . . . thus define what has the right to be said and done in the culture 
in question, and since they are themselves a part of that culture, they are 
legitimated by the simple fact that they do what they do” (p. 23). Rorty 
agrees with Lyotard that Habermas’s difficulty is that “he scratches where 
it does not itch.” 42 This means that neither our culture nor our societies 



124 / Seyla Benhabib 


need justification or criticism, adoration or reprimand. We have to satisfy 
ourselves with context-immanent criteria that the political practices of 
Western democracies provide us with. 4 ' Rorty further advocates the devel¬ 
opment of a “de-theoreticized sense of community,” the growth of an 
“analogue of civic virtue—tolerance, irony, and a willingness to let 
spheres of culture flourish without worrying too much about their ‘common 
ground,’ their unification. . . .’ ,44 This admirable demand, to use an ex¬ 
pression of another decade, “to let a hundred flowers bloom,” is motivated 
by a desire to depoliticize philosophy. “Then one might see,” writes Rorty, 
“the canonical sequence of philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche as 
a distraction from the history of concrete social engineering which made 
the North Atlantic culture what it is now, with all its glories and all its 
dangers.” 45 

Perhaps one should admire the honesty of one of the leading philoso¬ 
phers of the Anglo-American culture in this sad avowal of the marginality 
to which the “glorious North Atlantic culture” reduces philosophical 
thought. Yet, Rorty’s statement is sad in another way. It reveals the 
internalization by an intellectual of the distrust and disparagement of 
intellectuals, accompanying the modem temperament from Edmund Burke 
to Norman Podhoretz. In fact, it reveals the internalization of the charge 
that were it not for the Weltschmerz of a few “pessimistic and too exclu¬ 
sively German individuals” 46 and those influenced by them, we would not 
have an adversary culture in this country. Isn’t there indeed a curious 
convergence between postmodernism and “young conservatism”? 

Thus, the agonistics of language games leads to its own paralogisms. 
On the one hand, there is Lyotard’s faith in the aesthetic avant-garde 
intellectuals as messengers of the “sublime” and harbingers of the way to 
the “unknown”; on the other hand, there is Rorty’s advice to abandon the 
“illusion of the intellectuals as a revolutionary vanguard” 47 and to return 
to a strange synthesis of Deweyian pragmatism and British conservatism. 

Hence, there follows the frustrating eclecticism of postmodernism in 
philosophy and elsewhere. Just as the postmodern architects of the “Chi¬ 
cago Seven” can cite classical, oriental, and Renaissance themes and 
details all in one breath in their plans for Chicago townhouses, 48 contempo¬ 
rary philosophy, dazzled by the dissolution of the episteme of representa¬ 
tion, is anxious to cite American pragmatism, French Nietscheanism, 
British conservatism, and Heideggerian wisdom all in one breath. It is 
likely that we will have to live with this polytheism and dazzling “play of 
surfaces,” as Jameson had named them, for some time to come. Nor is it 
unwelcome that the frozen fronts of philosophy are becoming fluid again. 
Only it is necessary that we think the epistemic alternatives created by the 
present also to their moral and political ends. For questions of truth, as 
Lyotard admits and Rorty denies, are still matters of justice as well. 



Epistemologies of Postmodernism / 125 


The paradigm shift in contemporary philosophy from consciousness to 
language, from the denotative to the performative, from the proposition 
to the speech-act, need not lead to a self-contradictory polytheism and to 
a vision of politics incapable of justifying its own commitment to justice. 
This paradigm shift can also lead to an epistemology and politics which 
recognizes the lack of metanarratives and foundational guarantees but 
which nonetheless insists on formulating minimal criteria of validity for 
our discursive and political practices. The struggle over what lies beyond 
the classical imperative remains unresolved. In this sense, the definition 
of postmodemity may be that of a future which we would like to think of 
as our past. 

Notes 

1. Paolo Portoghesi, After Modern Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1982), 
p. 7ff. 

2. Cf. M. Berman. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (New York: Simon and 
Schuster, 1982), pp. 37ff., 60-71. 

3. Peter Eisenman, accompanying text to exhibit piece, “Cite Unseen,” in 
“Revision der Modeme,” Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Summer 1984, 
Frankfurt am Main. For some of the difficulties in characterizing Eisen- 
man’s work, cf. Charles A. Jencks, Late-Modern Architecture and Other 
Essays (New York: Rizzoli, 1980), pp. 13, 137ff. 

4. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowl¬ 
edge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massouri, forward by F. Jameson 
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). All future references 
in the text are to this edition. Appended to the English translation is also 
the essay “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism,” trans. R. 
Durand, originally in Critique, No. 419, April 1982. 

5. Cf. H. Arendt’s statement: “Descartes’ philosophy is haunted by two night¬ 
mares which in a sense became the nightmares of the whole modem age, 
not because this age was so deeply influenced by Cartesian philosophy, but 
because their emergence was almost inescapable once the true implications 
of the modem world view were understood. These nightmares are very 
simple and very well known. In the one, reality, the reality of the world as 
well as of human life, is doubted. . . . The other concerned ... the 
impossibility for man to trust his senses and his reason." The Human 
Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), eighth printing, 

p. 211 . 

6. I borrow the phrase from R. Rorty’s well-known article, “The World Well 
Lost,” which argues that the conclusion to be drawn from contemporary 
epistemological disputes about conceptual frameworks is that “The notion 
of the ‘world’ that is correlative with the notion of a ‘conceptual framework’ 
is simply the Kantian notion of a thing-in-itself. . . .” Originally published 



126 / Seyla Benhabib 


in Journal of Philosophy (1972), reprinted in Consequences of Pragmatism 
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), p. 16. 

7. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton 
University Press, 1979), p. 131 ff. 

8. Charles Taylor, “Theories of Meaning,” Daves Hickes Lecture, Proceed¬ 
ings of the British Academy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 
284. 

9. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C. B. McPherson (Baltimore: Penguin 
Books, 1971), p. lOlff. Cf. M. Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeol¬ 
ogy of the Human Sciences (New York: Random House, 1973), First 
Vintage Books edition: “In its simple state as an idea, or an image, or a 
perception, associated with or substituted for another, the simplifying ele¬ 
ment is not a sign. It can become a sign only on condition that it manifests, 
in addition, the relation that links it to what it signifies. It must represent, 
but that representation, in turn, must also be represented within it” (p. 64). 

10. The transition from consciousness to self-consciousness, from representa¬ 
tion to desire in Chapter 3 of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit contains 
also a critique of the spectator conception of the knowing subject. Hegel’s 
point is that an epistemological standpoint confined to the spectator concep¬ 
tion of the self cannot solve the questions it raises; most notably, it cannot 
explain the genesis and becoming of an object of knowledge. It is only 
insofar as the knowing self is also an acting one that it can destroy the myth 
of the given in knowledge (Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. with an 
analysis and foreward by J. N. Findlay [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977], 
pp. 104—110). Cf. “He does not see how the sensuous world around him 
is not given direct from all eternity, ever the same, but is the product of 
industry and of the state of society, and indeed in the sense that it is 
an historical product, the result of the activity of a whole succession of 
generations,” K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology, ed. and 
intro, by R. Pascal (New York: International Publishers, 1969), p. 35. M. 
Horkheimer, “Traditional and Critical Theory,” Critical Theory, trans. M. 
J. O’Connell et al. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), pp. 188-244. 
J. Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, trans. J. Shapiro (Boston: 
Beacon Press, 1972), pp. 1-65. S. Freud, “A Difficulty in the Path of 
Psychoanalysis,” Standard Edition (London: Hogarth, 1953), Vol. 17, pp. 
137-144. For this reading of Freud, I am much indebted to Paul Ricoeur, 
Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage 
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), pp. 419—459. 

11. Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Genealogy of Morals,” The Birth of Tragedy and 
the Genealogy of Morals, trans. F. Golffing(New York: Doubleday, 1958), 
p. 289ff. 

12. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward 
Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), pp. 47ff.; “Die Frage nach 
der Technik?” Vortrage und Aufsatze (Stuttgart: Gunther Neske, 1974), 
fourth ed., p. 27ff. 



Epistemologies of Postmodernism / 127 


13. M. Horkheimer and Th. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklarung (Frankfurt am 
Main: Fischer Verlag, 1980), p. 12, originally published in Amsterdam 
1947. 

14. Cf. Wittgenstein’s critique of the “naming” theory of meaning and of 
the impossibility of viewing language as a private game in Philosophical 
Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: MacMillan Com¬ 
pany, 1965), tenth printing, pp. 27-32, 38, 39, 180, 199ff. 

15. Charles Sanders Peirce, “Some Consequences of Four Incapabilities,” Se¬ 
lected Writings, ed. and with an intro, and notes by Philip Wiener (New 
York: Dover Publications, 1966), pp. 53-54; K.-O. Apel, “From Kant to 
Peirce: The Semiotical Transformation of Transcendental Logic,” Toward 
a Transformation of Philosophy, trans. G. Adey and D. Frisby (London: 
RKP, 1980), pp. 77-93. 

16. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. by C. Bally and 
A. Sechehaye, trans. and intro, by Wade Baskin (New York: McGraw Hill, 
1959), p. 67ff. 

17. Cf. Manfred Frank, War ist Neostrukturalismus? (Frankfurt am Main: 
Suhrkamp, 1984), pp. 7Iff., 83ff., 259. Pierre Bourdieu and J. C. Passeron, 
“Sociology and Philosophy in France since 1945: Death and Resurrection 
of a Philosophy without the Subject,” Social Research, Vol. 34, No. 1, 
Spring 1983, pp. 162-212. 

18. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, pp. 124, 49e. 

19. K.-O. Apel, “Sprechakttheorie und transzendentale Sprachpragmatik zur 
Frage ethischer Normen,” in Sprachpragmatik und Philosophic, ed. K.-O. 
Apel (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1976), pp. 10-81; J. Habermas, 
“Was heisst Universalpragmatik?” ibid., pp. 184-273, English translation 
by T. McCarthy, “What is Universal Pragmatics?” in Communication and 
the Evolution of Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), pp. 1-69. 

20. J. Habermas, “An Excursus on Theory of Argumentation,” The Theory of 
Communicative Action, Vol. 1, trans. T. McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 
1984), p. 23ff. 

21. One of Habermas’s main purposes in developing a theory of discourse and 
argumentation was to formulate a concept of the validity of ethical norms, 
which avoided the dogmatism of natural law theories (that confuse moral 
validity and factual assertions) and the arbitrariness of emotivism (that 
reduced moral claims to statements of taste). Cf. “Zwei Bemerkungen zum 
praktischen Diskurs,” Konstruktionen versus Positionen, ed. Kuno Lorenz 
(Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1979); “Wahrheitstheorien," Wirklichkeit und 
Reflexion, ed. H. Fahrenbach (Pfullingen: Neske, 1973), pp. 211-265. 

22. Against Lyotard’s reading, 1 want to emphasize that linguistically mediated 
communicative action serves three functions: first, the coordination of social 
action among individuals; second, the socialization and individuation of 
members of a human group; and third, the appropriation of cultural tradition 
and the generation of meaning and symbolic patterns which define the 



128 / Seyla Benhabib 


hermeneutic horizon of a culture. Cf. Habermas, The Theory of Communi¬ 
cative Action, pp. 100-101, 136ff. 

23. Quoted in Frank, Was ist Neostructuralismus?, p. 111. 

24. J. L. Austin, How to do Things with Words (Cambridge, MA: Harvard 
University Press, 1962), p. 120. 

25. Admittedly, the interpretation of the distinction between illocutionary’ and 
perlocutionary acts is controversial (cf. Austin, How to do Things with 
Words, pp. 120ff.). The difficulty with Lyotard’s interpretation of Austin’s 
thesis appears to be that he conflates the illocutionary force of an utterance 
with the producing of certain effects, intended or otherwise, by means of 
an utterance. Thus, he describes a “performative utterance" as one whose 
“effect upon the recipient coincided with its enunciation” ( The Postmodern 
Condition, p. 9). Austin, however, identifies an illocutionary act as an act 
we perform in saying something ( How to do Things with Words, p. 99), 
and the description of which can figure in the first person indicative as “I 
pronounce that,” “I warn you that,” “I inform you that,” etc. In his valuable 
article, “Intention and Convention in Speech Acts,” P. F. Strawson clarifies 
in fact how irrelevant the achieving of certain effects upon the hearer is to 
the identifying of illocutionary acts; he shifts the focus instead to the overt 
intention of the speaker and the recognition by his hearers of this intention, 
regardless of how they choose to respond to it. Philosophical Review, No. 
73, 1964, pp. 439-460. 

26. Habermas, “The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment: Rereading the 
Dialectic of Enlightenment,” New German Critique, Vol. 26, Spring-Sum¬ 
mer 1982. 

27. Rorty, “Habermas and Lyotard on Postmodemity,” Praxis International, 
Vol. 4, No. 1, April 1984, p. 33. 

28. Ibid. 

29. This argument is somewhat unconvincing because Lyotard does not distin¬ 
guish between the internal cognitive dynamics of science and its social uses. 
Performativity, or what is known as “scientism” in the tradition of critical 
theory, is a view that legitimizes science by an appeal to—although not 
exclusively—its social-technological uses. That scientism is not an adequate 
theory of the natural sciences has been argued forcefully by others like 
Mary Hesse, Revolutions and Reconstructions in the Philosophy of Science 
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980). However, in attacking this 
ideology, Lyotard ignores the social reality it expresses. The fact that 
postmodern natural science operates with a discontinuous epistemology of 
instabilities does not decide the question of its social role. Lyotard empha¬ 
sizes the internal, cognitive dynamics of modem science while ignoring its 
social-technological aspects. For the distinction between the cognitive and 
social dynamics of science, cf. G. Bohme et al., Finalization of Science, 
ed. W. Schafer (Boston: D. Reidel Publishing, 1983), pp. 3-11. 

30. For a recent statement of problems and issues, cf. R. J. Bernstein, The 



Epistemologies of Postmodernism / 129 


Restructuring of Social and Political Theory (Philadelphia: University of 
Pennsylvania Press, 1976). 

31. Rorty, “Habermas and Lyotard on Postmodemity,” p. 34. 

32. Ibid. 

33. Frank, Was ist Neostrukturalismus?, p. 106. 

34. Cf. E. Gellner, “Concepts and Society,” Rationality, ed. B. R. Wilson 
(New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1970), pp. 18-50; P. Bourdieu, 
Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cam¬ 
bridge University Press, 1979), pp. 22-30. 

35. In portraying this relationship, Lyotard adopts the observer's point, the 
standpoint of the curator of an ethnological museum of the past. Had he 
adopted the participant’s perspective, he would have had to concede that 
“gazing in wonderment at the variety of discursive species” is hardly the 
attitude to take when confronted with the moral and epistemic problems 
that the coexistence of incompatible discursive modes pose for us qua 
children of the modem West. In this essay, I am only arguing that these 
modes of thought cannot harmoniously coexist in one epistemic space, that 
their very presence next to each other poses moral as well as cognitive 
problems, or that the question of validity inevitably confronts us, and that 
we cannot extricate ourselves from an answer by gazing in wonderment at 
the plurality of language games and life-forms. For a recent statement of 
these thorny questions, cf. Rationality and Relativism, ed. by Steven Lukes 
and Martin Hollis (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984). 

36. Fredric Jameson, “The Politics of Theory: Ideological Positions in the 
Postmodernism Debate,” New German Critique, No. 33 (Fall 1984), pp. 
53-66. 

37. I adopt this phrase from Vincent Descombes, Modern French Philosophy 
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 184. 

38. Lyotard, Economic Libidinale, pp. 54-55, as cited by Descombes, p. 185. 

39. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, pp. 355-364. Indeed, it is this condemna¬ 
tion of the Terror that leads Hegel “to conceptually legitimize the revolution¬ 
izing reality without the Revolution itself.” Habermas, “Hegel’s Critique of 
the French Revolution,” Theory’ and Practice, trans. John Viertel, (Boston: 
Beacon Press, 1971), p. 123ff. 

40. J. Habermas, “Modernity versus Postmodemity,” New German Critique, 
Vol. 22, Winter 1981, p. 13. In his “Questions and Counter-questions,” 
Praxis International, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1984), pp. 229-249. Habermas has 
modified this charge somewhat, but it strikes me as being quite accurate 
for at least one possible implication of the postmodernist epistemological 
positions. 

41. Albrecht Wellmer makes a similar point in his “On the Dialectic of Modern¬ 
ism and Postmodernism,” Praxis International, Vol. 4, No. 4 (1985), pp. 
337-362. 



130 / Seyla Benhabib 


42. Rorty, “Habermas and Lyotard on Postmodernity,” p. 34. 

43. Ibid., p. 35. 

44. Ibid., p. 38. 

45. Ibid., p. 41. 

46. Ibid., p. 38. 

47. Ibid., p. 35. This is a curious demand, since the whole revival of critical 
theory in Europe as well as in this country, and certainly a main political 
impetus behind Habermas’s and Wellmer’s works, was the abandonment 
and critique by the Student Movement and of the New Left of the illusion 
of a revolutionary vanguard. It is as if some French and American intellectu¬ 
als are suffering a lapse of memory in the 1980s, accusing the Student 
Movement and the New Left of attitudes that they did most to combat. 

48. Cf. the works of the Chicago School (Stanley Tigerman, Frederick Read, 
Peter Pran, Stuart Cohen, Thomas Beeby, Anders Nerheim) exhibited at 
“Die Revision der Modeme,” Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt, 
Summer 1984. 



Part II 





6 


Feminism, Postmodernism, and 
Gender-Scepticism 

Susan Bordo 


Contemporary Feminism and Gender-Scepticism 

Recently, I heard a feminist historian claim that there were absolutely 
no common areas of experience between the wife of a plantation owner 
in the pre-Civil War South and the female slaves her husband owned. 
Gender, she argued, is so thoroughly fragmented by race, class, historical 
particularity, and individual difference, as to self-destruct as an analytical 
category. The “bonds of womanhood,” she insisted, is a feminist fantasy, 
bom out of the ethnocentrism of white, middle-class academics. 


A central point of a recently published book by a feminist philosopher 
is the refutation of all feminist attempts to articulate a sense in which the 
history of philosophy reveals distinctively “male” perspectives on reality. 


The writing of this chapter was made possible by the generous support of the Rockefeller 
Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies/Ford Foundation. Written 
while 1 was in residence at the Duke University/University of North Carolina Center for 
Research on Women, it has benefitted greatly from my participation in the Duke/UNC 
communities, especially from almost daily conversation with LeeAnn Whites, and from 
the insights and suggestions of friends and colleagues there who read and commented on 
earlier drafts: Ted Koditschek, Jean O’Barr, Lynne Tirrell, Jane Tompkins, and Mary 
Wyer. 1 am grateful to Mario Moussa and Linda Robertson for their help in enabling me 
to shape and clarify later drafts, at a point when I was beginning to lose my own distance 
and focus on the piece. I would also like to thank Pat Keane, Edward Lee, Bruce Shefrin, 
and Linda Nicholson for their comments and suggestions. Finally, it is impossible to 
adequately acknowledge the contribution of Lynne Arnault, for whose friendship, insight, 
ability to help me untie my intellectual knots, and deep philosophical and practical 
engagement with the issues of importance to both of us, I am constantly grateful. 


133 



134 / Susan Bordo 


All such attempts, the author argues, “do violence” to the history of 
philosophy and “injustice” to the “extremely variegated nature” of male 
experience. Indeed, any attempt to “cut” reality and perspective along 
gender lines is methodologically flawed and essentializing. 


For some feminist literary theorists, gender has become a “discursive 
formation,” inherently unstable and continually self-deconstructing. The 
meaning of gender is constantly “deferred,” endlessly multiple. We must 
“get beyond the number two,” as one writer has described it, and move 
toward a “dizzying accumulation of narratives.” (A new journal is entitled 
Genders.) Not to do so is to perpetuate a hierarchical, binary construction 
of reality. 


In the November 1987 issue of Ms. magazine, an article appeared on 
the art of Georgia O’Keeffe. It included the text of a letter from O’Keeffe 
to Mabel Luhan: 

“I thought you could write something about me that the men can’t— 
What I want written—I do not know—I have no definite idea of what 
it should be—but a woman who has lived many things and who sees 
lines and colors as an expression of living—might say something that 
a man can’t—I feel there is something unexplored about woman that 
only a woman can explore—Men have done all they can do about it. 

Does that mean anything to you — or doesn’t it?” 

The article itself, written by a staff reporter, begins: “Georgia O’Keeffe. 
The woman of our century who made it clear once and for all that painting 
had no gender.” 


In the 1970s, the feminist imagination was fueled by the insight that the 
template of gender could disclose aspects of culture and history previously 
concealed. The male-normative view of the world, feminists argued, had 
obscured its own biases through its fictions of unity (History, Reason, 
Culture, Tradition, and so forth). Each of those unities was shown to 
have a repressed shadow—an Other whose material history, values, and 
perspective had yet to be written. 

Today, many feminists are critical of what they now see as the oversim¬ 
plifications and generalizations of this period in feminism. Challenges 
have arisen—sometimes emotionally charged—targeted against earlier 
classics of feminist theory and their gendered readings of culture and 



Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism / 135 


history. Where once the prime objects of academic feminist critique 
were the phallocentric narratives of our male-dominated disciplines, now 
feminist criticism has turned to its own narratives, finding them reduction¬ 
ist, totalizing, inadequately nuanced, valorizing of gender difference, 
unconsciously racist, and elitist. It seems possible to discern what may be 
a new drift within feminism, a new scepticism about the use of gender as 
an analytical category. 

Such scepticism is by no means universal; contemporary feminism 
remains a diverse and pluralist enterprise. Nor does gender-scepticism 
take one characteristic form. Rather, it has emerged (as my opening 
montage suggests) across disciplines and theoretical affiliations, speaking 
in different voices and crystallized around different concerns. Naming and 
criticizing such a phenomenon is a slippery, perilous business. Yet, it is 
my contention that there is an important cultural formation here, the 
analysis of which must become a pressing concern for feminists. 

Like all cultural formations, feminist gender-scepticism is complexly 
constructed out of diverse elements—intellectual, psychological, institu¬ 
tional, and sociological. Arising not from monolithic design but from an 
interplay of factors and forces, it is best understood not as a discrete, 
definable position which can be adopted or rejected, but as an emerging 
coherency which is being fed by a variety of currents, sometimes overlap¬ 
ping, sometimes quite distinct. In this chapter, I will critically examine 
four such currents and the (sometimes unintentional) routes by which they 
empty into the waters of gender-scepticism. 

The first current is the result of a recent academic marriage which 
has brought indigenous feminist concerns over the ethnocentrisms and 
unconscious racial biases of gender theory into a theoretical alliance with 
(a highly programmatic appropriation of) the more historicist, politically 
oriented wing of poststructuralist thought (e.g., Foucault, Lyotard). This 
union, I will argue, has contributed to the development of a new feminist 
“methodologism” which lays claims to an authoritative critical framework, 
legislating “correct” and “incorrect” approaches to theorizing identity, 
history, and culture. This methodologism, which eschews generalizations 
about gender a priori on theoretical grounds, is in danger of discrediting 
and disabling certain kinds of feminist cultural critique; it also often 
implicitly (and mistakenly) supposes that the adoption of a “correct” 
theoretical approach makes it possible to avoid ethnocentrism. 

The second current which I discuss in this chapter is the result of 
certain feminist appropriations of deconstructionism. Here, a postmodern 
recognition of interpretive multiplicity, of the indeterminacy and heteroge¬ 
neity of cultural meaning and meaning-production, is viewed as calling 
for new narrative approaches, aimed at the adequate representation of 
textual “difference.” From this perspective, the template of gender is 



136 / Susan Bordo 


criticized for its fixed, binary structuring of reality and is replaced with a 
narrative ideal of ceaseless textual play. But this ideal, I will argue, 
while arising out of a critique of modernist epistemological pretensions to 
adequately represent reality, remains animated by its own fantasies of 
attaining an epistemological perspective free of the locatedness and limita¬ 
tions of embodied existence—a fantasy that I call a “dream of every¬ 
where.” 

Through the critical concerns raised in these sections of my chapter, I 
hope to encourage caution among those who are ready to wholeheartedly 
celebrate the emergence of “postmodern feminism.” The programmatic 
appropriation of poststructuralist insight, I will argue, in shifting the focus 
of crucial feminist concerns about the representation of cultural diversity 
from practical contexts to questions of adequate theory, is highly problem¬ 
atic for feminism. Not only are we thus diverted from attending to the 
professional and institutional mechanisms through which the politics of 
exclusion operate most powerfully in intellectual communities, but we 
also deprive ourselves of still vital analytical tools for critique of those 
communities and the hierarchical, dualistic power structures that sustain 
them.' 

If this is so, what are the mechanisms which have drawn feminists into 
participation with such a development? The last two currents I examine 
provide foci for examining such issues, through an exploration of the 
institutions of knowledge/power that still dominate in our masculinist 
public arena and that now threaten, I will argue, to harness and tame the 
visionary and critical energy of feminism as a movement of cultural 
resistance and transformation. 

From The “View from Nowhere” to Feminist Methodologism 

Let me begin with a story, told from my perspective as a feminist 
philosopher, about the emergence of gender analytics and the difficulties 
into which it later fell. 2 

In 1979, Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature burst on 
the philosophical scene in the United States. Its author, established and 
respected within the very traditions he now set out to deconstruct, was 
uniquely situated to legitimate a simple yet subversive argument. That 
argument, earlier elaborated in different ways by Marx, Nietzsche, and 
Dewey, and being developed on the continent in the work of Derrida and 
Foucault, held that ideas are the creation of social beings rather than the 
(more or less adequate) representations or “mirrorings” of nature. 

Rorty’s presentation of this argument was philosophically elegant, pow¬ 
erful, and influential. But it was not Rorty, rebellious member of the 
club (or indeed, any professional intellectual voice), who was ultimately 



Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism / 137 


responsible for uncovering the pretensions and illusions of the ideals 
of epistemological objectivity, foundations, and neutral judgment. That 
uncovering first occurred, not in the course of philosophical conversation, 
but in political practice. Its agents were the liberation movements of the 
sixties and seventies, emerging not only to make a claim to the legitimacy 
of marginalized cultures, unheard voices, suppressed narratives, but also 
to expose the perspectivity and partiality of the official accounts. Now 
those accounts could no longer claim to descend from the heavens of pure 
rationality or to reflect the inevitable and progressive logic of intellectual 
or scientific discovery. They had to be seen, rather, as the products of 
historically situated individuals with very particular class, race, and gender 
interests. The imperial categories which had provided justification for 
those accounts—Reason, Truth, Human Nature, History, Tradition—now 
were displaced by the (historical, social) questions: Whose truth? Whose 
nature? Whose version of reason? Whose history? Whose tradition? 

Feminism, appropriately enough, initiated the cultural work of exposing 
and articulating the gendered nature of history, culture, and society. It 
was a cultural moment of revelation and relief. The category of the 
“human”—a standard against which all difference translates to lack, insuf¬ 
ficiency—was brought down to earth, given a pair of pants, and reminded 
that it was not the only player in town. Our students still experience this 
moment of critical and empowering insight when, for example, they learn 
from Gilligan (1982) and others that the language of “rights” is not the 
ethical discourse of God or Nature, but the ideological superstructure of 
a particular construction of masculinity. 1 

Gender theorists Dinnerstein (1977), Chodorow (1978), Gilligan 
(1982), and many others uncovered patterns that resonate experientially 
and illuminate culturally. They cleared a space, described a new territory, 
which radically altered the male-normative terms of discussion about 
reality and experience; they forced recognition of the difference gender 
makes. Academic disciplines were challenged, sometimes in their most 
basic self-conceptions and categories—as in philosophy, which has made 
an icon of the ideal of an abstract, universal reason, a reason without race, 
class, gender, or history (the “view from nowhere,” to borrow Thomas 
Nagel’s [1986] apt phrase). There is no view from nowhere, feminists 
insisted; indeed, the “view from nowhere” may itself be a male construc¬ 
tion of the possibilities for knowledge. 4 

The unity of the “gendered human,” however, often proved to be as 
much a fiction as the unity of abstract, universal “man.” In responding to 
the cultural imperative to describe the difference gender makes, gender 
theorists (along with those who attempted to speak for a “black experience” 
uninflected by gender or class) often glossed over other dimensions of 
social identity and location, dimensions which, when considered, cast 



138 / Susan Bordo 


doubt on the proposed gender (or racial) generalizations. Chodorow 
(1978), for example, has frequently been criticized for implicitly 
elevating one pattern of difference between men and women, characteris¬ 
tic at most of a particular historical period and form of family 
organization, to the status of an essential “gender reality.” Since the 
patterns described in gender analysis have often been based on the 
experiences of white, middle-class men and women, such accounts are 
guilty, feminists have frequently pointed out, of perpetuating the same 
sort of unconscious privilegings and exclusions characteristic of the 
male-normative theories they criticize. 

As was the case when the first challenges were presented to the imperial 
unities of the phallocentric world view, the agents of critical insight into 
the biases of gender theory were those excluded and marginalized: women 
of color, lesbians, and others who found their history and culture ignored 
in the prevailing discussions of gender. What I wish to emphasize here is 
that these challenges, arising out of concrete experiences of exclusion, 
were neither grounded in a conception of adequate “theory” nor did they 
demand a theoretical response. Rather, as new narratives began to be 
produced, telling the story of the diversity of women’s experiences, the 
chief imperative was to listen, to become aware of one’s biases, prejudices, 
and ignorance, to begin to stretch the borders of what Minnie Bruce Pratt 
(1984) calls “the narrow circle of the self.” For academics, this required, 
too, that we stretch the established borders of required curriculum, course 
reading lists, lecture series, research designs, student and faculty recruit¬ 
ment, and so forth. 

We also should have learned that while it is imperative to struggle 
continually against racism and ethnocentrism in all its forms, it is impossi¬ 
ble to be “politically correct.” For the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion 
(as history had just taught us) are played out on multiple and shifting 
fronts, and all ideas (no matter how “liberatory” in some contexts or for 
some purposes) are condemned to be haunted by a voice from the margins, 
already speaking (or perhaps presently muted but awaiting the conditions 
for speech), awakening us to what has been excluded, effaced, damaged. 5 
However, nothing in the indigenous feminist critique of early gender 
theory, it should be noted, declared the theoretical impossibility of discov¬ 
ering common ground among diverse groups of people or insisted that the 
abstraction of gender coherencies across cultural difference is bound to 
lapse into a pernicious universalization. It is only recently, as feminism 
has become drawn into what Barbara Christian (1988) has called the “race 
for theory,” that problems of racism, ethnocentrism, and ahistoricism have 
become wedded to general methodological concerns about the legitimacy 
of gender generalization and abstraction. 

Frequently (although not exclusively 6 ), the categories of postmodern 



Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism / 139 


thinkers have been incorporated in statements of these concerns. Nancy 
Fraser and Linda Nicholson, for example, urge feminists to adopt a 
“postmodern-feminist theory” of identity, in which general claims about 
“male” and “female” reality are eschewed in favor of “complexly con¬ 
structed conceptions . . . treating gender as one relevant strand among 
others, attending also to class, race, ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation” 
(p. 35). Conceptions of gender (and, presumably, of race, class, sexual 
orientation, and so forth) that are not constructed in this way are totalizing, 
that is, they crease a false unity out of heterogeneous elements, relegating 
the submerged elements to marginality. Much past feminist theory, Fraser 
and Nicholson argue, is guilty of this. Like the “grand narratives of 
legitimation” (of the white, male, Western intellectual tradition) which 
Lyotard and others have criticized, the narratives of gender analysis har¬ 
bor, either fully (e.g., Chodorow) or in “trace” form (e.g., Gilligan), “an 
overly grandiose and totalizing conception of theory” (p. 29). Donna 
Haraway, too, describes gender theory in the same terms used by postmod¬ 
ernists to criticize phallocentric culture: appropriation, totalization, incor¬ 
poration, suppression. 

These proposals for more adequate approaches to identity begin from 
the invaluable insight that gender forms only one axis of a complex, 
heterogeneous construction, constantly interpenetrating, in historically 
specific ways, with multiple other axes of identity. I want to question, 
however, the conversion of this insight into the authoritative insight, and 
from there into a privileged critical framework, a “neutral matrix” (to 
borrow Rorty’s term), legislating the appropriate terms of all intellectual 
efforts, capable of determining who is going astray and who is on the right 
track. This is a result that Fraser and Nicholson would also deplore, given 
their obvious commitment to feminist pluralism; their ideal is that of a 
“tapestry composed of threads of many different hues” (p. 35). Sharing 
this ideal, I question whether it is best served through a new postmodem- 
feminist theoretical agenda. 

Certainly, feminist scholarship will benefit from more local, historically 
specific study and from theoretical projects analyzing the relations of 
diverse axes of identity. Too often, however (e.g., in grant, program, and 
conference guidelines and descriptions), this has translated to the coercive, 
mechanical requirement that all enlightened feminist projects attend to 
“the intersection of race, class, and gender.” What happened to ethnicity? 
Age? Sexual orientation? On the other hand, just how many axes can 
one include and still preserve analytical focus or argument? Even more 
troubling is the (often implicit, sometimes explicit) dogma that the only 
“correct” perspective on race, class, and gender is the affirmation of 
difference; this dogma reveals itself in criticisms which attack gender 
generalizations as in principle essentialist or totalizing. Surely, such 



140 / Susan Bordo 


charges should require concrete examples of actual differences that are 
being submerged by any particular “totality” in question. 

We also need to guard against the “view from nowhere” supposition 
that if we employ the right method we can avoid ethnocentrism, totalizing 
constructions, and false universalizations. No matter how local and cir¬ 
cumscribed the object or how attentive the scholar is to the axes that 
constitute social identity, some of those axes will be ignored and others 
selected. This is an inescapable fact of human embodiment, as Nietzsche 
was the first to point out: “The eye ... in which the active and interpreting 
forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something, are sup¬ 
posed to be lacking [is] an absurdity and a nonsense. There is only a 
perspectival seeing, only a perspectival knowing” (On The Genealogy of 
Morals, p. 119). This selectivity, moreover, is never innocent. We always 
“see” from points of view that are invested with our social, political, and 
personal interests, inescapably “centric” in one way or another, even in 
the desire to do justice to heterogeneity. 

Nor does attentiveness to difference assure the adequate representation 
of difference. Certainly, we often err on the side of exclusion and thus 
submerge large areas of human history and experience. But attending too 
vigilantly to difference can just as problematically construct an Other who 
is an exotic alien, a breed apart. As Foucault has reminded us, “everything 
is dangerous”—and every new context demands that we reassess the “main 
danger” (1983, p. 232). This requires a “hyper- and pessimistic activism,” 
not an alliance with one, true theory. For no theory—not even one which 
measures its adequacy in terms of justice to heterogeneity, locality, com¬ 
plexity—can place itself beyond danger. 

Indeed, it is possible, as we all know, to advance the most vociferously 
anti-totalizing theories, and yet to do so in the context of an intellectual 
discourse and professional practice (governing hiring, tenure, promotion, 
publications, etc.) whose very language requires membership to under¬ 
stand, and that remains fundamentally closed to difference (regarding it 
as “politically incorrect,” “theoretically unsophisticated,” “unrigorous” 
and so forth). We deceive ourselves if we believe that postmodern theory 
is attending to the “problem of difference” so long as so many concrete 
others are excluded from the conversation. On the other hand, in the 
context of a practice which is attentive to issues of exclusion and commit¬ 
ted to developing the conditions under which many voices can speak 
and be heard, clear, accessible, stimulating general hypotheses can be 
dialogically invaluable. Such ideas reconfigure the realities we take for 
granted; they allow us to examine our lives freshly; they bring history and 
culture to new life and invite our critical scrutiny. Showing a bold hand, 
they can encourage difference to reveal itself as well. 

In terms of such practical criteria, feminist gender theory deserves a 



Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism / 141 


somewhat different historical evaluation than is currently being written.' 
Certainly, it is undeniable that such theory, as Fraser and Nicholson 
persuasively argue, has overly universalized. (Chodorow’s work, for ex¬ 
ample, requires careful historical circumscription and contextualization; 
it then becomes enormously edifying for certain purposes). The reasons 
for this, as I suggested earlier, reflect the historical “logic” conditioning 
the emergence of contemporary feminist thought and are not merely symp¬ 
tomatic of the ethnocentrism of white, middle-class feminists. We all— 
postmodernists especially—stand on the shoulders of this work (and on 
the shoulders of those who spoke, often equally univocally, for black 
experience and culture). Could we now speak of the differences that inflect 
gender if gender had not first been shown to make a difference? 

While in theory, all “totalizing” narratives may be equal, in the context 
of Western history and the actual relations of power characteristic of that 
history, key differences distinguish the universalizations of gender theory 
from the metanarratives arising out of the propertied, white, male. Western 
intellectual tradition. That tradition, we should remember, reigned for 
thousands of years and was able to produce powerful works of philosophy, 
literature, art, and religion before its hegemony began to be dismantled, 
under great protest. Located at the very center of power, at the intersection 
of three separate axes of privilege—race, class, and gender—that tradition 
had little stake in the recognition of difference (other than to construct it 
as inferior or threatening Other). This is not to say that this tradition is 
univocal. Rather, my point is that it produced no self-generated practice 
of self-interrogation and critique of its racial, class, and gender biases— 
because they were largely invisible to it. 

Feminist theory—even the work of white, upper-class women—is not 
located at the center of cultural power. The axes whose intersections form 
the cultural locations of feminist authors give some of us positions of 
privilege, certainly; but all of us, as women, also occupy subordinate 
positions, positions in which we feel ignored or denigrated. Contemporary 
feminism, emerging out of that recognition, has from the beginning exhib¬ 
ited an interest in restoring to legitimacy that which has been marginalized 
and disdained, an interest, I would suggest, that has affected our intellec¬ 
tual practice significantly. As an “outsider” discourse, that is, a movement 
bom out of the experience of marginality, contemporary feminism has 
been unusually attuned to issues of exclusion and invisibility. This does 
not mean, of course, that the work of feminists has not suffered deeply 
from class, racial, and other biases. But I find Donna Haraway’s charge 
(p. 199) that “white feminists . . . were forced kicking and screaming to 
notice” those biases to be remarkable. It is a strange (perhaps postmodern) 
conception of intellectual and political responsiveness that views white 
feminism, now critically scrutinizing (and often utterly discrediting) its 



142 / Susan Bordo 


conceptions of “female” reality and morality and its “gendered” readings 
of culture barely more than a decade after they began to be produced, as 
“resistant” to recognizing its own fictions of unity. 

In the context of our specific history, assessing where we are now, I 
believe that feminism stands less in danger of the “totalizing” tendencies 
of feminists than of an increasingly paralyzing anxiety over falling (from 
what grace?) into ethnocentrism or “essentialism”. (The often-present 
implication that such a fall indicates deeply conservative and racist tenden¬ 
cies, of course, intensifies such anxiety). Do we want to delegitimate a 
priori the exploration of experiential continuity and structural common 
ground among women? Journals and conferences are now becoming domi¬ 
nated by endless debates about method, reflections on how feminist schol¬ 
arship should proceed, where it has gone astray, and so forth. We need 
to consider the degree to which this serves, not the empowerment of 
diverse cultural voices and styles, but the academic hegemony (particularly 
in philosophy and literary studies) of detached, metatheoretical discourse. 8 
If we wish to empower diverse voices, we would do better, I believe, to 
shift strategy from the methodological dictum that we foreswear talk of 
“male” and “female” realities (which, as I will argue later, can still be 
edifying and useful), to the messier, more slippery, practical struggle to 
create institutions and communities that will not permit some groups of 
people to make determinations about reality for all. 

The View from Nowhere and the Dream of Everywhere 

In theory, deconstructionist postmodernism stands against the ideal of 
disembodied knowledge and declares that ideal to be a mystification and 
an impossibility. There is no Archimedean viewpoint; rather, history and 
culture are texts, admitting an endless proliferation of readings, each of 
which is itself unstable. I have no dispute with this epistemological critique 
or with the metaphor of the world-as-text as a means of undermining 
various claims to authoritative, transcendant insight into the nature of 
reality. The question remains, however, how the human knower is to 
negotiate this infinitely perspectival, destabilized world. Deconstruction¬ 
ism answers with constant vigilant suspicion of all determinate readings 
of culture and a partner aesthetic of ceaseless textual play as an alternative 
ideal. Here is where deconstruction may slip into its own fantasy of escape 
from human locatedness—by supposing that the critic can become wholly 
protean by adopting endlessly shifting, seemingly inexhaustible vantage 
points, none of which are “owned” by either the critic or the author of a 
text under examination. 

Deconstructionism has profoundly affected certain feminist approaches 
to gender as a grid for the reading of culture. Such readings, they argue, 



Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism / 143 


only reproduce the dualistic logic which has held the Western imagination 
in its grip. Instead, contemporary feminism should attempt, as Susan 
Suleiman (1986) describes it, “to get beyond, not only the number one— 
the number that determines unity of body or of self—but also to get beyond 
the number two, which determines difference, antagonism and exchange 
. . (p. 24). “One is too few,” as Donna Haraway writes, “but two are 

too many.” (p. 219). The “number one” clearly represents for Suleiman 
the fictions of unity, stability, and identity characteristic of the phallocen- 
tric world view. The “number two” represents the grid of gender, which 
feminists have used to expose the hierarchical, oppositional structure of 
that world view. “Beyond the number two” is no other number, but 
“endless complication” and a “dizzying accumulation of narratives.” Su¬ 
leiman here refers to Derrida’s often-quoted interview with Christy Mac¬ 
Donald (1982), in which he speaks of “a ‘dream’ of the innumerable, . . . 
a desire to escape the combinatory ... to invent incalculable choreogra¬ 
phies” (p. 76). 

Such images from Derrida have been used in a variety of ways by 
feminists. Drucilla Cornell and Adam Thurschwell (1987) present it as a 
utopian vision of human life no longer organized by gender duality and 
hierarchy. But Suleiman presents it as offering an epistemological or 
narrative ideal. As such, key contrasts with traditional (most particularly, 
Cartesian) images of knowing immediately are evident. Metaphors of 
dance and movement have replaced the ontologically fixing stare of the 
motionless spectator. The lust for finality is banished. The dream is of 
“incalculable choreographies,” not the clear and distinct “mirrorings” of 
nature, seen from the heights of “nowhere.” But, I would argue, the 
philosopher’s fantasy of transcendence has not yet been abandoned. The 
historical specifics of the modernist, Cartesian version have simply been 
replaced with a new postmodern configuration of detachment, a new 
imagination of disembodiment: a dream of being everywhere. 

My point can best be seen through examination of the role of the 
body—that is, the metaphor of the body—in these (seemingly contrasting) 
epistemologies of “nowhere” and “everywhere.” For Cartesian epistemol¬ 
ogy, the body—conceptualized as the site of epistemological limitation, 
as that which fixes the knower in time and space and therefore situates 
and relativizes perception and thought—requires transcendence if one is 
to achieve the view from nowhere, God’s eye-view. Once one has achieved 
that view (has become object- ive), one can see nature as it really is, 
undistorted by human perspective. For postmodern Suleiman, on the other 
hand, there is no escape from human perspective, from the process of 
human making and remaking of the world. The body, accordingly, is 
reconceived. No longer an obstacle to knowledge (for “knowledge” in the 
Cartesian sense is an impossibility, and the body is incapable of being 



144 / Susan Bordo 


“transcended” in pursuit of it), the body is seen instead as the vehicle of 
the human making and remaking of the world, constantly shifting location, 
capable of revealing endlessly new “points of view” on things. 

Beneath the imagery of a moving (but still unified) body is the deeper 
postmodern imagery of a body whose own unity has been shattered by the 
choreography of multiplicity. For the “creative movement” (as Suleiman 
describes it) of human interpretation, of course, “invents” (and reinvents) 
the body itself. Donna Haraway imaginatively and evocatively describes 
this fragmented postmodern body through the image of the Cyborg, which 
becomes a metaphor for the “disassembled and reassembled, postmodern 
collective and personal self [which] feminists must code” (p. 205). The 
Cyborg is not only culturally “polyvocal”; she (?) “speaks in tongues” (p. 
223). Looking at it via the imagery of archetypal typology rather than 
science fiction, the postmodern body is the body of the mythological 
“Trickster,” the shape-shifter: “of indeterminate sex and changeable gen¬ 
der . . . who continually alters her/his body, creates and recreates a 
personality . . . [and] floats across time” from period to period, place to 
place. (Smith-Rosenberg, 1985, p. 291). 

The appeal of such archetypes is undeniable. Set against the masculinist 
hubris of the Cartesian ideal of the magisterial, universal knower whose 
privileged epistemological position reveals reality as it is, the postmodern 
ideal of narrative “heteroglossia” (as Haraway calls it) appears to celebrate 
a “feminine” ability to identify with and enter into the perspectives of 
others, to accept change and fluidity as features of reality. At a time when 
the rigid demarcations of the clear and distinct Cartesian universe are 
crumbling, and the notion of the unified “subject” is no longer tenable, 
the Trickster and the Cyborg invite us to “take pleasure” (as Haraway puts 
it) in the “confusion of boundaries” (p. 191), in the fragmentation and 
fraying of the edges of the self that have already taken place. 

However, the spirit of epistemological jouissance which is suggested 
by the images of Cyborg, Trickster, the metaphors of dance, and so 
forth, also obscures the located, limited, inescapably partial, and always 
personally invested nature of human “story making.” This is not merely 
a theoretical point. Deconstructionist readings that enact this protean 
fantasy are continually “slip-slidin’ away”; through paradox, inversion, 
self-subversion, facile and intricate textual dance, they often present them¬ 
selves (maddeningly, to one who wants to enter into critical dialogue with 
them) as having it any way they want. They refuse to assume a shape for 
which they must take responsibility. 

Recognition of this responsibility, on the other hand, forces one to take 
a more humble approach to the project of embracing heterogeneity. That 
project, taken as anything other than an ideal of social process, is self¬ 
deconstructing. The imagination of “justice” to heterogeneity, entertained 



Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism / 145 


as an epistemological (or narrative) goal, devours its own tail. For the 
appreciation of difference requires the acknowledgment of some limit to 
the dance, beyond which the dancer cannot go. If she were able to go 
there, there would be no difference, nothing which eludes. To deny the 
unity and stability of identity is one thing. The epistemological fantasy of 
becoming multiplicity—the dream of limitless multiple embodiments, 
allowing one to dance from place to place and self to self—is another. 
What sort of body is it that is free to change its shape and location at will, 
that can become anyone and travel everywhere? If the body is a metaphor 
for our locatedness in space and time and thus for the finitude of human 
perception and knowledge, then the postmodern body is no body at all. 

The deconstructionist erasure of the body is not affected, as in the 
Cartesian version, through a trip to “nowhere,” but in a resistance to the 
recognition that one is always somewhere, and limited. Here, it becomes 
clear that to overcome Cartesian hubris, it is not sufficient to replace 
metaphors of spectatorship with metaphors of dance; it is necessary to 
relinquish all fantasies of epistemological conquest, not only those that 
are soberly fixed on necessity and unity but also those that are intoxicated 
with possibility and plurality. Despite the explicit rejection of conceptions 
of knowledge that view the mind as a “mirror of nature,” deconstruction¬ 
ism reveals a longing for adequate representations—unlike Cartesian con¬ 
ceptions, but no less ambitiously, of a relentlessly heterogeneous reality. 9 

The Retreat from Female Otherness 

The preceding discussion of the body as epistemological metaphor for 
locatedness has focused on deconstructionism’s theoretical deconstruction 
of locatedness. In the next two sections of this chapter, I want to shift 
gears and pursue the issue of locatedness—or rather, the denial of locat¬ 
edness—in more concrete directions. 

It is striking to me that there often is a curious selectivity at work in 
contemporary feminist criticisms of gender-based theories of identity. The 
analytics of race and class—the two other giants of modernist social 
critique—do not seem to be undergoing the same deconstruction. Rather, 
it is my impression that feminists infrequently demand the same attentive¬ 
ness to difference, or the same sensitivity to issues of interpretation and 
textuality from the analytics of race and class that we do from the analytics 
of gender. When women of color construct “white feminists” as a unity, 
without attention to the class, ethnic, and religious differences that situate 
and divide us, white feminists tend to accept this (as I believe they 
should) as enabling crucial sorts of criticisms to be made. It is usually 
acknowledged, too, that the experience of being a person of color in a 
racist culture creates some similarities of position across class and gender. 



146 / Susan Bordo 


At the very least, the various notions of identity that have come out 
of race consciousness are regarded as what Nietzsche would call “life- 
enhancing [i.e. edifying] fictions.” Donna Haraway, for example, ap¬ 
plauds the homogenizing unity “women of color” as “a cyborg identity, 
a potent subjectivity synthesized from fusions of outsider identities” (p. 
216). 

I have heard feminists insist, too, that race and class each have a 
“material base” that gender lacks. When the suggestion is made that 
perhaps such a material base exists for gender, in women’s reproductive 
role, the wedges of cultural diversity and multiple interpretation suddenly 
are produced. Women have perceived childbearing, as Jean Grimshaw 
points out, “as both the source of their greatest joy and as the root of their 
worst suffering” (p. 73); she concludes that the differences in various 
social constructions of reproduction, the vast disparities in women’s expe¬ 
riences of childbirth, and so forth preclude that the practices of reproduc¬ 
tion can meaningfully be interrogated as a source of insight into the 
difference gender makes. Why, it must be asked, are we so ready to 
deconstruct what have historically been the most ubiquitous elements of 
the gender axis, while so willing to defer to the authority and integrity of 
race and class axes as fundamentally grounding ?'° 

In attempting to answer this question, I will no longer focus on postmod¬ 
ern theory, for the current of gender-scepticism which I am exploring here 
is not particularly characteristic of postmodern feminism. Rather, it flows 
through all theoretical schools of feminist thought, revealing itself in 
different ways. In place of my previous focus on postmodernism, I will 
organize my discussion instead around a heuristic distinction between 
two historical moments of feminist thought, representing two different 
perspectives on “female otherness.” 

A previous generation of feminist thought (whose projects, of course, 
many feminists continue today) set out to connect the work that women 
have historically done (typically regarded as belonging to the “material,” 
practical arena, and thus of no epistemological or intellectual significance) 
with distinctive ways of experiencing and knowing the world. As such, 
the imagination of female alterity was a “life-enhancing” fusion, providing 
access to coherent visions of utopian change and cultural transformation. 
Within this moment, too, a developing feminist focus on the role of 
mothering in the construction of infant gender identity (and thus of culture) 
was central to the ongoing feminist deconstruction of the phallocentric 
world view. (Within that world view it is the father/theologian/philosopher 
who is the sole source of morality, logic, language). 

The feminist recovery of female otherness from the margins of culture 
had both a “materialist” wing (Ruddick, Hartsock, Rich, and others) 
and a psychoanalytic wing (Dinnerstein, Chodorow, Kristeva, Cixous, 



Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism / 147 


Irigaray), the latter attempting to reconstruct developmental theory with 
the pre-Oedipal mother rather than the phallic father at its center. I think 
it is instructive to note the difference in the way that feminists once 
described this work from the way it is often described now. In a 1982 
Diacritics review of Dinnerstein, Rich, and Chodorow, Coppelia Kahn 
describes what these authors have in common: 

To begin with, they all regard gender less as a biological fact than 
as a social product, an institution learned through and perpetuated by 
culture. And they see this gender system not as a mutually beneficial 
and equitable division of roles, but as a perniciously symbiotic polarity 
which denies full humanity to both sexes while meshing—and helping 
to create—their neuroses. Second, they describe the father-absent, 
mother-involved nuclear family as creating the gender identities which 
perpetuate patriarchy and the denigration of women.. . . They question 
the assumption that the sexual division of labor, gender personality, 
and heterosexuality rest on a biological and instinctual base. . . . They 
present, in effect, a collective vision of how maternal power in the 
nursery defines gender so as to foster patriarchal power in the public 
world, (p. 33). 

In a 1987 talk, Jean Grimshaw describes these same texts as depicting 
motherhood “as a state of regression” in which the relation between mother 
and child is “idealized” in its symbiotic nondifferentiation." Chodorow’s 
lack of historical specificity was not the issue here, but her portrayal, as 
Grimshaw saw it, of a suffocating reality as a cozy, blissful state and an 
implicit criticism of women who do not experience maternity in this way. 
Similarly, Toril Moi, in a talk devoted to reviving Freud’s view of reason 
against the revisions of feminist object relations theory, describes that 
theory as involving “an idealization of pre-Oedipal mother-child rela¬ 
tions,” a “biologistic” view of development, and a “romanticization of the 
maternal.” 12 Are Grimshaw and Moi discussing the same works as Kahn? 

Of course, the answer is no. For the context has changed, and these 
texts are now being read by these critics from the perspective of a different 
concrete situation than that which existed when Kahn produced her reading 
of Chodorow, Dinnerstein, and Rich. My point is not that Kahn’s reading 
was the “correct” one (for there is no timeless text against which to measure 
historical interpretations). Rather, I wish to encourage confrontation with 
the present context. It is the present context that has supplied the specters 
of “biologism,” ’’romanticization,” and “idealization.” The dangers that 
we are responding to are not in the texts, but in our social reality and in 
ourselves. 

In speaking of social reality, I am not only referring to the danger of 
feminist notions of male and female realities or perspectives entering into 



148 / Susan Bordo 


a conservative Zeitgeist where they will function as an ideological mooring 
for the reassertion of traditional gender roles. In a time of great backlash 
against changes in gender-power relations, that danger is certainly real 
enough. What I am primarily interested in here, however, are the changing 
meanings of female Otherness for women, as we attempt to survive, in 
historically unprecedented numbers, within our still largely masculinist 
public institutions. 

Changes in the professional situation of academic feminists over the 
last ten years may be exemplary here. A decade ago, the exploration and 
revaluation of that which has been culturally constructed as “female” set 
the agenda for academic feminists of many disciplines, at a time when 
feminism was just entering the (white, male) academy and had not yet 
been integrated into it or professionalized by it. We were outsiders, of 
suspect politics (most of us had been “political” feminists before or during 
our professional training), and inappropriate sex (a woman philosopher?). 
Then, to be a feminist academic was to be constantly aware of one’s 
Otherness; one could not forget that one was a woman even if one tried. 
The feminist imagination was fueled precisely by what it was never 
allowed to forget: The analysis of the historical construction of male power 
and female Otherness became our theoretical task. 

Today, on the other hand, we have been “accepted.” That is, it has 
been acknowledged (seemingly) that women can indeed “think like men,” 
and those women who are able to adopt the prevailing standards of 
professional “balance,” critical detachment, rigor, and the appropriate 
insider mentality have been rewarded for their efforts. Those who are 
unable or unwilling to do so (along with those men who are similarly 
unable or unwilling) continue to be denied acceptance, publications, ten¬ 
ure, promotions. At this juncture, women may discover that they have a 
new investment in combating notions that gender locates and limits. 

In such a world any celebration of “female” ways of knowing or thinking 
may be felt by some to be a dangerous alliance professionally and perhaps 
a personal regression as well. For, within the masculinist institutions we 
have entered, relational, holistic, and nurturant attitudes continue to be 
marked as flabby, feminine, and soft. In this institutional context, as we 
are permitted “integration” into the public sphere, the category of female 
Otherness, which has spoken to many feminists of the possibility of 
institutional and cultural change, of radical transformation of the values, 
metaphysical assumptions, and social practices of our culture, may be¬ 
come something from which we wish to dissociate ourselves. We need 
instead to establish our leanness, our critical incisiveness, our proficiency 
at clear and distinct dissection. 

I was startled, at a conference last year, by the raw hostility of a number 
of responses to a talk on “female virtue”; I have often been dismayed at 



Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism / 149 


the anger which (white, middle-class) feminists have exhibited toward the 
work of Gilligan and Chodorow. This sort of visceral reaction to theorists 
of gender difference (unlike the critiques discussed in the first section in 
this chapter) is not elicited by their ethnocentrism or ahistoricism; it is 
specifically directed against what is perceived as their romanticization of 
female values — empathy, mothering, and so forth. Such a harsh critical 
stance is protection, perhaps, against being tarred by the brush of female 
Otherness, of being contaminated by things “female.” Of course, to ro¬ 
manticize anything is the last thing that any rigorous scholar would do. 
Here, disdain for female “sentimentality” intersects, with both the modem 
fashion for the cool and the cult of professionalism in our culture. 

Gender-Scepticism and the Reproduction of 
Male Knowledge/Power 

Generalizations about gender can obscure and exclude. Of course, this 
is true. I would suggest, however, that such determinations cannot be 
made by methodological fiat but must be decided from context to context. 
The same is true of the representation of heterogeneity and complexity. 
There are dangers in too wholesale a commitment to either dual or multiple 
grids. 

Too relentless a focus on historical heterogeneity, for example, can 
obscure the transhistorical hierarchical patterns of white, male privilege 
that have informed the creation of the Western intellectual tradition. 13 
More generally, the deconstruction of dual girds can obscure the dualistic, 
hierarchical nature of the actualities of power in Western culture. Contem¬ 
porary feminism, like many social movements arising in the 1960s, devel¬ 
oped out of the recognition that to live in our culture is not (despite 
powerful social mythology to the contrary) to participate equally in some 
free play of individual diversity. Rather, one always finds oneself located 
within structures of dominance and subordination—not least important of 
which have been those organized around gender. Certainly, the duality of 
male/female is a discursive formation, a social construction. So, too, is 
the racial duality of black/white. But as such, each of these dualities has 
had profound consequences for the construction of experience of those 
who live them. 

The danger that 1 have spoken of above can be detected—between the 
lines, as it were — in the following excerpt from Jean Grimshaw’s 
Philosophy and Feminist Thought (1986): 


The experience of gender, of being a man or a woman, inflects much 
if not all of people’s lives. . . . But even if one is always a man or a 
woman, one is never just a man or a woman. One is young or old, sick 



150 / Susan Bordo 


or healthy, married or unmarried, a parent or not a parent, employed 
or unemployed, middle class or working class, rich or poor, black or 
white, and so forth. Gender of course inflects one’s experience of these 
things, so the experience of any one of them may well be radically 
different according to whether one is a man or a woman. But it may 
also be radically different according to whether one is, say, black or 
white or working class or middle class. The relationship between male 
and female experience is a very complex one. Thus there may in some 
respects be more similarities between the experience of a working-class 
woman and a working-class man—the experience of factory labor for 
example, or of poverty and unemployment—than between a working- 
class woman and a middle-class woman. But in other respects there 
may be greater similarities between the middle-class woman and the 
working-class woman—experiences of domestic labor and childcare, 
of the constraints and requirements that one be “attractive,” or “femi¬ 
nine,” for example. 

Experience does not come neatly in segments, such that it is always 
possible to abstract what in one’s experience is due to “being a woman” 
from that which is due to “being married,” “being middle class” and 
so forth, (pp. 84-85) 


Grimshaw emphasizes, absolutely on target, that gender never exhibits 
itself in pure form but in the context of lives that are shaped by a multiplic¬ 
ity of influences, which cannot be neatly sorted out. This doesn’t mean, 
however, (as Grimshaw goes on to suggest) that abstractions or generaliza¬ 
tions about gender are methodologically illicit or perniciously homogeniz¬ 
ing of difference. Certainly, we will never find the kind of theoretical 
neatness which Grimshaw, nostalgic for a Cartesian universe of clear and 
distinct segments, requires of such abstraction. But, as anyone who has 
taught courses in gender knows, there are many junctures at which, for 
example, women of color and white women discover profound commonal¬ 
ities in their experience, as well as differences. 14 One can, of course, 
adjust one’s methodological tools so that these commonalities become 
indiscemable under the finely meshed grid of various interpretations and 
inflections (or the numerous counterexamples which can always be pro¬ 
duced). But what then becomes of social critique? Theoretical criteria 
such as Grimshaw’s, which measure the adequacy of representations in 
terms of their “justice” to the “extremely variegated nature” of human 
experience (p. 102), must find nearly all social criticism guilty of method¬ 
ologically illicit and distorting abstraction. Her inflection argument, al¬ 
though designed to display the fragmented nature of gender, in fact decon¬ 
structs race, class, and historical coherencies as well. For (although race, 
class, and gender are privileged by current intellectual convention), the 
inflections that modify experience are endless, and some item of difference 



Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism / 151 


can always be produced which will shatter any proposed generalizations. 
If generalization is only permitted in the absence of multiple inflections 
or interpretive possibilities, then cultural generalizations of any sort— 
about race, about class, about historical eras—are ruled out. What remains 
is a universe composed entirely of counterexamples, in which the way 
men and women see the world is purely as particular individuals, shaped 
by the unique configurations that form that particularity. 15 

It is no accident, I believe, that feminists are questioning the integrity 
of the notion of “female reality” just as we begin to get a foothold in those 
professions which could be most radically transformed by our (historically 
developed) Otherness and which have been historically most shielded 
from it. Foucault constantly reminds us that the routes of individual interest 
and desire do not always lead where imagined and may often sustain 
unintended and unwanted configurations of power. Could feminist gender- 
scepticism, in all its multifaceted “deployment” (to continue the Foucaul- 
dian motif), now be operating in the service of the reproduction of white, 
male knowledge/power? 

If so, it will not be the result of conspiracy, but a “strategy,” as 
Foucault would say, “without strategists,” operating through numerous, 
noncentralized processes: through the pleasure of joining an intellectual 
community and the social and material rewards of membership; through 
the excitement of engagement in culturally powerful and dominant theoret¬ 
ical enterprises; through our own exhaustion with maintaining an agonistic 
stance at the institutions where we work; through intellectual boredom 
with stale, old talk about male dominance and female subordination; 
through our postmodern inclination to embrace the new and the novel; 
through the genuine insights that new theoretical perspectives offer; 
through our feminist commitments to the representation of difference; 
even (most ironically) through out “female” desire to heal wounds of 
exclusion and alienation. 

More coercively, we may be required to abandon our “female” ways 
of knowing and doing through the demands of “professionalism” and its 
exacting, “neutral” standards of rigor and scholarship. The call to profes¬ 
sionalism is especially powerful, almost irresistible for an academic. In the 
classical traditions of our culture, “the man of reason” provided the model 
of such “neutrality” (a neutrality that feminists have exposed as an illusion 
and a mystification of its masculinist biases.) Today, however, the category 
of the “professional” functions in much the same way; it may be the distinc¬ 
tively twentieth-century refurbishing of the view from nowhere. 

It is striking—and chilling—to learn how many of the issues confronting 
professional women today were constructed in virtually the same terms in 
debates during the 1920s and 1930s, when the social results of the first 
feminist wave were being realized. Then as now, there was a strong 



152 / Susan Bordo 


backlash, particularly among professional women, against feminist talk 
about gender difference. “We’re interested in people now—not men and 
women,” declared a Greenwich Village female literary group, proclaiming 
itself (in 1919) as “post-feminist” (Cott, p. 282). The “New Woman” of 
the twenties, like her counterpart today, was glamorized for her diversity, 
equal to that of men: “The essential fact about the New Women is that 
they differ among themselves, as men do, in work and play, in virtue, in 
aspiration and in rewards achieved. They are women, not woman,” wrote 
Leta Hollingworth (Cott, p. 277). “The broad unsexual world of activity 
lies before every human being,” declared Miriam Ford (Cott, p. 281). 

Professional women in particular shunned and scorned the earlier gener¬ 
ation of activist women, who had made themselves a “foreign, irritating 
body” to prevailing institutions and who attempted to speak for an alterna¬ 
tive set of empathic, relational “female” values (Cott, p. 231). Instead, 
women were urged to adopt the rationalist, objectivist standards they 
found in place in the universities and professions they entered, to aspire to 
“excellence” and “forgetfulness of self’ rather than gender consciousness 
(Cott, p. 232), to develop a “community of interest between themselves 
and professional men [rather than] between themselves and non-profes¬ 
sional women” (Cott, p. 237). Professional women saw in the “neutral” 
standards of objectivity and excellence the means of being accepted as 
“humans,” not women. In any case, as Cott points out, to have mounted 
a strategy against those standards (to expose them as myths, to offer other 
visions) would have surely “marked them as outsiders” (p. 235). 

In a culture that is in fact constructed by gender duality, however, one 
cannot simply be “human.” This is no more possible than it is possible 
that we can “just be people” in a racist culture. (It is striking, too, that 
one hears this complaint from whites—“why can’t we just be people; why 
does it always have to be ‘black’ this and ‘white’ that . . .”—only when 
black consciousness asserts itself.) Our language, intellectual history, and 
social forms are “gendered”; there is no escape from this fact and from its 
consequences on our lives. Some of those consequences may be unin¬ 
tended, may even be fiercely resisted; our deepest desire may be to 
“transcend gender dualities”; to not have our behavior categorized as 
“male” or “female.” But, like it or not, in our present culture, our activities 
are coded as “male” or “female” and will function as such within the 
prevailing system of gender-power relations. The adoption of the “profes¬ 
sional” standards of academia is no more an activity devoid of gender 
politics than the current fashion in women’s tailored suits and large¬ 
shouldered jackets is devoid of gender meaning. One cannot be “gender 
neutral” in this culture. 

One might think that postmodernism, which has historicized and criti¬ 
cized the liberal notion of the abstract “human,” would be an ally here. 



Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism / 153 


This is partially so. But the postmodern critique of liberal humanism is 
mitigated by its tendencies, discussed earlier, to insist on the “correct” 
destabilization of general categories of social identity: race, class, gender, 
and so forth. Practically—that is, in the context of the institutions which 
we are trying to transform—the most powerful strategies against liberal 
humanism have been those that demystify the “human” (and its claims to 
“neutral” perspective) through general categories of social identity, which 
give content and force to the notions of social interest, historical location, 
and cultural perspective. Now, we are being advised that the strongest 
analyses along such lines—for example, classic feminist explorations of 
the consequences of female-dominated infant care or of the “male” biases 
of our disciplines and professions—are to be rejected as resources for 
understanding history and culture. Most of our institutions have barely 
begun to absorb the message of modernist social criticism; surely, it is too 
soon to let them off the hook via postmodern heterogeneity and instability. 
This is not to say that the struggle for institutional transformation will be 
served by uni vocal, fixed conceptions of social identity and location. 
Rather, we need to reserve practical spaces for both generalist critique 
(suitable when gross points need to be made) and attention to complexity 
and nuance. We need to be pragmatic, not theoretically pure, if we are to 
struggle effectively with the inclination of institutions to preserve and 
defend themselves against deep change. 

Of course, it is impossible to predict the cultural meanings that one’s 
gestures will take on and the larger formations in which one will find one’s 
activities participating. Nonetheless, history does offer some cautions. 
The 1920s and 1930s saw a fragmentation and dissipation of feminist 
consciousness and feminist activism, as women struggled with what Nancy 
Cott calls “the dilemma of twentieth-century feminism”: the tension be¬ 
tween the preservation of gender consciousness and identity (as a source 
of political unity and alternative vision) and the destruction of “gender 
prescriptions” (p. 239) which limit human choice and possibility. The 
“postfeminist” consciousness of the twenties and thirties, in pursuit of an 
ideal world undermined by gender dualities, cut itself adrift from the 
moorings of gender identity. This was culturally, historically understand¬ 
able. But we thus, I believe, cut ourselves off from the source of femi¬ 
nism’s transformative possibilities—possibilities that then had to be re¬ 
vived and reimagined again four decades later. The deconstruction of 
gender analytics, I fear, may be participating in a similar cultural moment 
of feminist fragmentation, coming around again. 

Notes 

1. This is not to say that I disdain the insights of poststructuralist thought 
(which I often apply in my own work). My argument here is addressed to 



154 / Susan Bordo 


certain programmatic uses of those insights. Much poststructuralist thought 
(the work of Foucault in particular) is better understood, I would argue, as 
offering interpretive tools and historical critique rather than theoretical 
frameworks for wholesale adoption. 

2. My discussion here is focused on the emergence of gender analytics in 
North America. The story, told in the context of France and England, would 
be different in many ways. 

3. It must be noted, however, that Gilligan does not view the different “voices” 
she describes as essentially or only related to gender. She “discovers” them 
in her clinical work exploring gender difference, but the chief aim of her 
book, as she describes it, is to “highlight a distinction between two modes 
of thought” which have been culturally reproduced along (but not only 
along) genderlines (p. 2). 

4. The literature here is large and growing all the time. For a representative 
bibliography, see APA Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy, March 
1989. For one of the earliest and best collections of articles dealing with 
the feminist critique of metaphysics and epistemology, see S. Harding and 
M. Hintikka. 

5. Recently, I presented a paper discussing some consequences of the fact that 
the classical philosophical canon has been dominated by white, privileged 
males. But they have also, as was pointed out to me afterward by Bat-Ami 
Bar On, overwhelmingly been Christian. As a Jew myself, I had to think 
long and hard about what that exclusion of mine meant, and I was grateful 
to be enabled, by Ami’s insight, to do so. This is, of course, the way we 
learn; it is not a process that should be freighted (as it often is nowadays) 
with the constant anxiety of “exposure” and political discreditation. 

6. Jean Grimshaw (1986) is an example of a feminist who expresses these 
theoretical concerns via the categories and traditional formulations of prob¬ 
lems of the Anglo-American analytic style of philosophizing, rather than 
those of continental poststructuralist thought. 

7. The Fraser and Nicholson article, which exhibits a strong, historically 
informed appreciation of past feminist theory, is fairly balanced in its 
critique. In contrast, other recent travels through the same literature have 
sometimes taken the form of a sort of demolition derby of previous feminist 
thought—portrayed in reductive, ahistorical, caricatured, and downright 
distorted terms, and presented, from the enlightened perspective of ad¬ 
vanced feminist method, as hopelessly inadequate. 

8. See Barbara Christian. “The Race For Theory,” (1988) for an extended 
discussion of such dynamics and the way in which they sustain the exclusion 
of the literatures and critical styles of peoples of color. 

9. Haraway elides these implications by a constant and deliberate ambiguity 
about the nature of the body she is describing: It is both “personal” and 
“collective.” Her call for “polyvocality” seems at times to be directed 
toward feminist culture as a collectivity, at other times, toward individual 



Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism / 155 


feminists. The image she ends her piece with, of a “powerful infidel hetero- 
glossia” to replace the old feminist dream of a “common language," sounds 
like a cultural image — until we come to the next line, which equates this 
image with that of “a feminist speaking in tongues.” 1 suggest that this 
ambiguity, although playful and deliberate, nonetheless reveals a tension 
between her imagination of the Cyborg as liberatory “political myth” and 
a lingering “epistemologism” which presents the Cyborg as a model of 
“correct” perspective on reality. I applaud the former and have problems 
with the latter. 

10. In speaking of “the practice of reproduction,” I have in mind not only 
pregnancy and birth, but menstruation, menopause, nursing, weaning, and 
spontaneous and induced abortion. I do not deny, of course, that all of these 
have been constructed and culturally valued in diverse ways. But does that 
diversity utterly invalidate any abstraction of significant points of general 
contrast between female and male bodily realities? The question, it seems 
to me, is to be approached through concrete exploration, not decided by 
theoretical fiat. 

11. “On Separation from and Connection to Others: Women’s Mothering and 
the Idea of a Female Ethic,” Keynote Address, 10th Annual Conference of 
the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy, University of Guelph, 
September 1987. 

12. “Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and Feminism,” University of North Carolina 
Women’s Studies lecture series, Chapel Hill, October 1987. 

13. In another paper (“Feminist Scepticism and the ‘Maleness’ of Philosophy”), 
I discuss these points in more detail. 

14. In my experience as a teacher, these commonalities have come to light not 
only in discussion of the works of writers such as Ntozake Shange and Toni 
Morrison but also through exploration of the work of those feminist theorists 
most often accused of white, middle-class bias and gender essentialism, 
e.g., Nancy Chodorow and Carol Gilligan. 

15. Lynne Arnault makes a similar point in “The Uncertain Future of Feminist 
Standpoint Epistemology” (unpublished paper). 

References 

Susan Bordo. “Feminist Scepticism and the ‘Maleness’ of Philosophy.” The 
Journal of Philosophy 85(11)(1988): 619-626. (Please note: This printed 
version is an abstract of a longer talk, delivered at the Eastern Meetings of 
the American Philosophical Association, December 1988, the text of which 
is available upon request from the author.) 

Barbara Christian. 1988. “The Race for Theory.” Feminist Studies 14 (1): 67- 
69. 

Nancy Cott. 1987. The Grounding of Modern Feminism. New Haven, CT: Yale 
University Press. 1987. 



156 / Susan Bordo 


Nancy Chodorow. 1978. The Reproduction of Mothering. Berkeley, CA: Univer¬ 
sity of California Press. 

Drucilla Cornell and Adam Thurschwell. 1987. “Feminism, Negativity, Intersub¬ 
jectivity.” In Feminism as Critique, ed. Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cor¬ 
nell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 143-162. 

Jacques Derrida and Christie V. McDonald. 1982. “Choreographies.” Diacritics 
12(2): 66-76. 

Dorothy Dinnerstein. 1977. The Mermaid and the Minotaur. New York: Harper 
& Row. 

Michel Foucault, “On the Geneology of Ethics,” Interview with Foucault in 
Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow. 1983. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structur¬ 
alism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson. 1989. “Social Criticism without Philosophy: 
An Encounter between Feminism and Postmodernism.” in this book. 

Carol Gilligan. 1982. In A Different Voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University 
Press. 

Jean Grimshaw. 1986. Philosophy and Feminist Thinking. Minneapolis: Univer¬ 
sity of Minnesota Press. 

Donna Haraway. 1989. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and 
Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” in this book. 

Sandra Harding and Merril Hintikka. 1983. Discovering Reality: Feminist Per¬ 
spectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of 
Science. Dordrecht: Rcidel. 

Coppelia Kahn. 1982. “Excavating ‘Those Dim Minoan Regions’: Maternal 
Subtexts in Patriarchal Culture,” Diacritics 12(3): 32—41. 

Thomas Nagel. 1986. The View From Nowhere. Oxford: Oxford University 
Press. 

Friedrich Nietzsche. 1969. On the Genealogy of Morals. New York: Vintage. 

Elly Bulkin, Minnie Bruce Pratt and Barbara Smith. 1984. Yours in Struggle: 
Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism. Brooklyn, NY: 
Long Haul Press. 

Richard Rorty. 1979. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton 
University Press. 

Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. 1985. Disorderly Conduct. Oxford: Oxford University 
Press. 

Susan Suleiman. 1986. “(Re)Writing the Body: The Politics and Poetics of 
Female Eroticism.” In The Female Body in Western Culture, ed. Susan 
Suleiman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 7-29. 



7 


Foucault on Power: 

A Theory for Women? 

Nancy Hart sock 


If we begin with a general question about the association of power and 
gender, the answer would seem to be self-evident: Power is associated 
firmly with the male and masculinity. Commentators on power have 
frequently remarked on its connections with virility and masculinity. 1 Yet, 
efforts to change the subordinate status of women require a consideration 
of the nature of power. In order to change the relations of domination 
which structure society and define our subordination, we must understand 
how power works, and thus we need a usable theory of power. Where is 
it to be found? How is it to be developed? Are relations of power between 
the sexes comparable to other kinds of power relations? Or are gender 
relations unique, and thus must we develop a new theory to account for 
them? Can theories of power currently being developed in the social 
sciences make fruitful contributions to the analysis of power relations 
between the sexes? If not, how could these theories be adapted in such a 
way that gender relations could be adequately conceptualized? 

I believe that while gender relations require specific description, much 
of what has been written about the relations of domination obtaining 
between other groups is relevant to the situation of women. One could 
find much common ground among theories of power which emerge from 
and respond to experiences of domination and subjugation. I am much 
less sanguine, however, about the utility of theories of power currently 
being developed in the social sciences. Not only do I find them not useful 
or fruitful for women or other oppressed groups, but I also fail to see how 


This chapter is a revised version of a paper presented at a conference titled “The Gender 
of Power,” at University of Leiden, September 1987, and published as a part of the 
conference proceedings. The Gender of Power, ed. Monique Lejnaar, Kathy Davis, 
Claudine Helleman, Jantine Oldersmaa, Dini Vos (Leiden: University of Leiden, 1987). 


157 



158 / Nancy Hartsock 


they might be reconceptualized or otherwise adapted to our needs. I have 
examined a number of these theories elsewhere, including the structuralist 
alternative proposed by Levi-Strauss, and found them wanting. 2 Here, I 
want to argue that poststructuralist theories such as those put forward by 
Michel Foucault fail to provide a theory of power for women. 

We must note at the outset that power is a peculiar concept, one that 
must be characterized as “essentially contested.” That is, different theories 
of power rest on different assumptions about both the content of existence 
and the ways we come to know it. That is, different theories of power rest 
on differing ontologies and epistemologies, and a feminist rethinking of 
power requires attention to its epistemological grounding. 3 

I have argued elsewhere that epistemologies grow out of differing 
material circumstances. We must, then, distinguish between theories of 
power about women—theories which may include the subjugation of 
women as yet another variable to be considered, and theories of power 
for women—theories which begin from the experience and point of view 
of the dominated. Such theories would give attention not only to the ways 
women are dominated, but also to their capacities, abilities, and strengths. 
In particular, such theories would use these capacities as guides for a 
potential transformation of power relationships—that is, for the empower¬ 
ment of women. I should add as a qualification that I refer to the empower¬ 
ment of women as a group, not simply a few women “making it.” One 
might make similar cases for other marginalized groups. 

But to mention the power of women leads immediately to the problem 
of what is meant by “women.” The problem of differences among women 
has been very prominent in the United States in recent years. We face the 
task of developing our understanding of difference as part of the theoretical 
task of developing a theory of power for women. Issues of difference 
reminds us as well that many of the factors which divide women also unite 
some women with men—factors such as racial or cultural differences. 
Perhaps theories of power for women will also be theories of power for 
other groups as well. We need to develop our understanding of difference 
by creating a situation in which hitherto marginalized groups can name 
themselves, speak for themselves, and participate in defining the terms of 
interaction, a situation in which we can construct an understanding of the 
world that is sensitive to difference. 

What might such a theory look like? Can we develop a general theory, 
or should we abandon the search for such a theory in favor of making 
space for a number of heterogeneous voices to be heard? What kinds of 
common claims can be made about the situations of women and men of 
color? About those of white women and women and men of color? About 
the situations of Western peoples and those they have colonized? For 



Foucault on Power / 159 


example, is it ever legitimate to say “women” without qualification? These 
kinds of questions make it apparent that the situation we face involves not 
only substantive claims about the world, but also raises questions about 
how we come to know the world, about what we can claim for our theories 
and ultimately about who “we” are. 1 want to ask what kinds of knowledge 
claims are required for grounding political action by different groups. 
Should theories produced by “minorities” rest on different epistemologies 
than those of the “majority?” Given the fact that the search for theory has 
been called into question in majority discourse and has been denounced 
as totalizing, do we want to ask similar questions of minority proposals 
or set similar standards? 

In our efforts to find ways to include the voices of marginalized groups, 
one might expect helpful guidance from those who have argued against 
totalizing and universalistic theories such as those of the Enlightenment. 
Many radical intellectuals have been attracted to a compilation of diverse 
writings ranging from literary criticism to the social sciences, generally 
termed postmodern. The writers, among them figures such as Foucault, 
Derrida, Rorty, and Lyotard, argue against the faith in a universal reason 
we have inherited from Enlightenment European philosophy. They reject 
stories that claim to encompass all of human history: As Lyotard puts it, 
“let us wage war on totality.” 4 In its place they propose a social criticism 
that is ad hoc, contextual, plural, and limited. A number of feminist 
theorists have joined in the criticism of modernity put forward by these 
writers. They have endorsed their claims about what can and cannot be 
known or said or read into/from texts. 

Despite their apparent congruence with the project I am proposing, I 
will argue these theories would hinder rather than help its accomplishment. 
Despite their own desire to avoid universal claims and despite their stated 
opposition to these claims, some universalistic assumptions creep back 
into their work. Thus, postmodernism, despite its stated efforts to avoid 
the problems of European modernism of the eighteenth and nineteenth 
centuries, at best manages to criticize these theories without putting any¬ 
thing in their place. For those of us who want to understand the world 
systematically in order to change it, postmodern theories at their best give 
little guidance. (I should note that I recognize that some postmodernist 
theorists are committed to ending injustice. But this commitment is not 
carried through in their theories.) Those of us who are not part of the 
ruling race, class, or gender, not a part of the minority which controls our 
world, need to know how it works. Why are we—in all our variousness— 
systematically excluded and marginalized?' What systematic changes 
would be required to create a more just society? At worst, postmodernist 
theories can recapitulate the effects of Enlightenment theories which deny 



160 / Nancy Hartsock 


the right to participate in defining the terms of interaction. Thus, I contend, 
in broad terms, that postmodernism represents a dangerous approach for 
any marginalized group to adopt. 

The Construction of the Colonized Other 

In thinking about how to think about these issues, I found that the work 
of Albert Memmi in The Colonizer and the Colonized was very useful as a 
metaphor for understanding both our situation with regard to postmodernist 
theorists and the situation of some postmodernist theorists themselves: 
Those of us who have been marginalized enter the discussion from a 
position analogous to that which the colonized holds in relation to the 
colonizer. Most fundamentally, I want to argue that the philosophical and 
historical creation of a devalued “Other” was the necessary precondition 
for the creation of the transcendental rational subject outside of time and 
space, the subject who is the speaker in Enlightenment philosophy. Simone 
de Beauvoir has described the essence of the process in a quite different 
context: “Evil is necessary to Good, Matter to Idea, and Darkness to 
Light.” 6 While this subject is clearest in the work of bourgeois philosophers 
such as Kant, one can find echoes of this mode of thought in some of 
Marx’s claims about the proletariat as the universal subject of history. 

Memmi described the bond that creates both the colonizer and the 
colonized as one which destroys both parties, although in different ways. 
As he draws a portrait of the Other as described by the colonizer, the 
colonized emerges as the image of everything the colonizer is not. Every 
negative quality is projected onto her/him. The colonized is said to be 
lazy, and the colonizer becomes practically lyrical about it. Moreover, 
the colonized is both wicked and backward, a being who is in some 
important ways not fully human. 7 As he describes the image of the 
colonized, feminist readers of de Beauvoir’s Second Sex cannot avoid a 
sense of familiarity. We recognize a great deal of this description. 8 

Memmi points to several conclusions drawn about this artificially cre¬ 
ated Other. First, the Other is always seen as “Not,” as a lack, a void, as 
lacking in the valued qualities of the society, whatever those qualities may 
be. 9 Second, the humanity of the Other becomes “opaque.” Colonizers 
can frequently be heard making statements such as “you never know 
what they think. Do they think? Or do they instead operate according to 
intuition?” (Feminist readers may be reminded of some of the arguments 
about whether women had souls, or whether they were capable of reason 
or of learning Latin.) Memmi remarks ironically that the colonized must 
indeed be very strange, if he remains so mysterious and opaque after years 
of living with the colonizer. Third, the Others are not seen as fellow 
individual members of the human community, but rather as part of a 



Foucault on Power / 161 


chaotic, disorganized, and anonymous collectivity. They carry, Memmi 
states, “the mark of the plural.” 10 In more colloquial terms, they all look 
alike. 

I want to stress once again that I am not claiming that women are a 
unitary group or that Western white women have the same experiences as 
women or men of color or as colonized peoples. Rather, I am pointing to 
a way of looking at the world characteristic of the dominant white, male, 
Eurocentric ruling class, a way of dividing up the world that puts an 
omnipotent subject at the center and constructs marginal Others as sets of 
negative qualities. 

What is left of the Other after this effort to dehumanize her or him? 
She/he is pushed toward becoming an object. As an end, in the colonizer’s 
supreme ambition, she/he should exist only as a function of the needs of 
the colonizer, that is, be transformed into a pure colonized. An object for 
himself or herself as well as for the colonizer." The colonized ceases to 
be a subject of history and becomes only what the colonizer is not. After 
having shut the colonized out of history and having forbidden him all 
development, the colonizer asserts his fundamental immobility. 12 Con¬ 
fronted with this image as it is imposed by every institution and in every 
human contact, the colonized cannot be indifferent to this picture. Its 
accusations worry the colonized even more because she/he admires and 
fears the powerful colonizing accuser. 

We can expand our understanding of the way this process works by 
looking briefly at Edward Said’s account of the European construction of 
the Orient. He makes the political dimensions of this ideological move 
very clear: Said describes the creation of the Orient as an outgrowth of a 
will to power. “Orientalism,” he states, “is a Western style for dominating, 
restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”' 

Interestingly enough, in the construction of these power relations, the 
Orient is often feminized. There is, however, the creation—out of this 
same process of the opposite of the colonized, the opposite of the Oriental, 
the opposite of women—of a being who sees himself as located at the 
center and possessed of all the qualities valued in his society (I use 
the masculine pronoun here purposely). Memmi describes this process 
eloquently: 


... the colonialist stresses those things that keep him separate rather 
than emphasizing that which might contribute to the foundation of a 
joint community. In those differences, the colonized is always degraded 
and the colonialist finds justification for rejecting his subjectivity. But 
perhaps the most important thing is that once the behavioral feature or 
historical or geographical factor which characterizes the colonialist and 
contrasts him with the colonized has been isolated, this gap must be 



162 / Nancy Hartsock 


kept from being filled. The colonialist removes the factor from history, 
time and therefore possible evolution. What is actually a sociological 
point becomes labeled as being biological, or preferably, metaphysical. 
It is attached to the colonized’s basic nature. Immediately the colonial 
relationship between colonized and colonizer, founded on the essential 
outlook of the two protagonists, becomes a definitive category. It is 
what it is because they are what they are, and neither one nor the other 
will ever change. 10 


Said points to something very similar. He argues that “European culture 
gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as 
a sort of surrogate and even underground self.” 15 Orientalism is part of 
the European identity that defines “us” versus the nonEuropeans. To go 
further, the studied object becomes another being with regard to whom 
the studying subject becomes transcendent. Why? Because, unlike the 
Oriental, the European observer is a true human being. 16 

But what does all this have to do with theory and the search for a theory 
of power for women? I want to suggest that in each of these cases—and 
the examples could be multiplied—what we see is the construction of 
the social relations, the power relations, which form the basis of the 
transcendent subject of Enlightenment theories—he (and I mean he) who 
theorizes. Put slightly differently, the political and social as well as 
ideological/intellectual creation of the devalued Other was at the same 
time the creation of the universalizing and totalizing voice postmodernists 
denounce as the voice of theory. 

These social relations and the totalizing voice they constitute are memo¬ 
rialized as well in the rules of formal logic. As Nancy Jay points out, the 
rules of logic we have chosen to inherit must be seen as principles of 
order. She calls attention to the principle of identity (if anything is A it 
is A), the principle of contradiction (nothing can be both A and not-A), 
and the principle of the excluded middle (anything and everything must 
be either A or not-A). She notes: “These principles are not representative 
of the empirical world; they are principles of order. In the empirical world, 
almost everything is in a process of transition: growing, decaying, ice 
turning to water and vice versa.” 17 

These logical principles of order underlie the pattern of thought I have 
been describing, a pattern which divides the world into A and not-A. The 
not-A side is regularly associated with disorder, irrationality, chance, 
error, impurity. Not-A is necessarily impure, a random catchall kind of 
category. The clue. Jay notes, is the presence of only one positive term. 
Thus, men/women/children is one form of categorizing the world, while 
men/women-and-children is quite different in implication. 18 Radical di¬ 
chotomy, then, functions to maintain order. The questions posed elo- 



Foucault on Power / 163 


quently in the literature I have been examining are these: In whose interest 
is it to preserve dichotomies? Who experiences change as disorder? 14 The 
central point I want to make is that the creation of the Other is simultane¬ 
ously the creation of the transcendent and omnipotent theorizer who can 
persuade himself that he exists outside time and space and power relations. 

The social relations which express and form a material base for these 
theoretical notions have been rejected on a world scale over the last several 
decades. Decolonization struggles, movements of young people, women’s 
movements, racial liberation movements—all these represent the diverse 
and disorderly Others beginning to demand to be heard and beginning to 
chip away at the social and political power of the theorizer. These move¬ 
ments have two fundamental intellectual theoretical tasks—one of critique 
and the other of construction. We who have not been allowed to be subjects 
of history, who have not been allowed to make our history, are beginning 
to reclaim our pasts and remake our futures on our own terms. 

One of our first tasks is the construction of the subjectivities of the 
Others, subjectivities which will be both multiple and specific. National¬ 
ism and separatism are important features of this phase of construction. 
Bernice Reagon (civil rights movement activist, feminist, singer with the 
band Sweet Honey in the Rock, and social historian with the Smithsonian) 
describes the process and its problems eloquently: 


[Sometimes] it gets too hard to stay out in that society all the time. And 
that’s when you find a place, and you try to bar the door and check all 
the people who come in. You come together to see what you can do 
about shouldering up all of your energies so that you and your kind can 
survive . . . [T]hat space should be a nurturing space where you sift 
out what people are saying about you and decide who you really are. 
And you take the time to try to construct within yourself and within 
your community who you would be if you were running society . . . 
[This is] nurturing, but it is also nationalism. At a certain stage, national¬ 
ism is crucial to a people if you are ever going to impact as a group in 
your own interest.' 


Somehow it seems highly suspicious that it is at the precise moment when 
so many groups have been engaged in “nationalisms” which involve 
redefinitions of the marginalized Others that suspicions emerge about the 
nature of the “subject,” about the possibilities for a general theory which 
can describe the world, about historical “progress.” Why is it that just at 
the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand 
the right to name ourselves, to act as subjects rather than objects of history, 
that just then the concept of subjecthood becomes problematic? Just when 
we are forming our own theories about the world, uncertainty emerges 



164 / Nancy Hartsock 


about whether the world can be theorized. Just when we are talking about 
the changes we want, ideas of progress and the possibility of systematically 
and rationally organizing human society become dubious and suspect. 
Why is it only now that critiques are made of the will to power inherent 
in the effort to create theory? I contend that these intellectual moves are 
no accident (but no conspiracy either). They represent the transcendental 
voice of the Enlightenment attempting to come to grips with the social 
and historical changes of the middle-to-late twentieth century. 

However, the particular forms its efforts have taken indicate a failure 
of imagination and reflect the fact that dominant modes of thought are 
imprisoned within Enlightenment paradigms and values. But these are 
simply questions. Let us look more closely at one effort to describe the 
tasks we are told to engage in if we adopt the postmodernist project. 

Foucault’s Resistance and Refusal 

Foucault represents one of the several figures in Memmi’s landscape. 
I have so far spoken only of the colonizer and the colonized, and these 
are indeed the basic structural positions. But Memmi makes an important 
distinction between the colonizer who accepts and the colonizer who 
refuses. If, as a group, modernist theories represent the views of the 
colonizer who accepts, postmodernist ideas can be divided between those 
who, like Richard Rorty, ignore the power relations involved, and those, 
like Foucault, who resist these relations. Foucault, I would argue, repre¬ 
sents Memmi’s colonizer who refuses and thus exists in a painful ambigu¬ 
ity. He is, therefore, a figure who also fails to provide an epistemology 
which is usable for the task of revolutionalizing, creating, and con¬ 
structing. 21 

Memmi states that as a Jewish Tunisian he knew the colonizer as well 
as the colonized, and so “understood only too well (the difficulty of 
the colonizer who refuses) their inevitable ambiguity and the resulting 
isolation; more serious still, their inability to act.” 22 He notes that it is 
difficult to escape from a concrete situation and to refuse its ideology 
while continuing to live in the midst of the concrete relations of a culture. 
The colonizer who attempts it is a traitor, but he is still not the colonized. 23 
The political ineffectiveness of the Left Colonizer comes from the nature 
of his position in the colony. Has one, Memmi asks, ever seen a serious 
political demand which did not rest on concrete supports of people or 
money or force? The colonizer who refuses to become a part of his group 
fellow citizens faces the difficult political question of who might he be." 4 

This lack of certainty and power infuses Foucault’s work most pro¬ 
foundly in his methodological texts. He is clearly rejecting any form of 
totalizing discourse: Reason, he argues, must be seen as born from chaos, 



Foucault on Power / 165 


truth as simply an error hardened into unalterable form in the long process 
of history. He argues for a glance that disperses and shatters the unity of 
man’s being through which he sought to extend his sovereignty. 25 That is, 
Foucault appears to endorse a rejection of modernity. Moreover, he has 
engaged in social activism around prisons. His sympathies are obviously 
with those over whom power is exercised, and he suggests that many 
struggles can be seen as linked to the revolutionary working-class 
movement. 

In addition, his empirical critiques in works such as Discipline and 
Punish powerfully unmask coercive power. Yet, they do so on the one 
hand by making use of the values of humanism that he claims to be 
rejecting: That is, as Nancy Fraser points out, the project gets its political 
force from “the reader’s familiarity with and commitment to modem ideals 
of autonomy, dignity, and human rights. 26 Moreover, Foucault explicitly 
attempts to limit the power of his critique by arguing that unmasking 
power can have only destabilizing rather than transformative effects. 27 But 
the sense of powerlessness and the isolation of the colonial intellectual 
resurfaces again and again. Thus, Foucault argues that: 

Humanity does not gradually progress from combat to combat until it 
arrives at universal reciprocity, where the rule of law finally replaces 
warfare; humanity installs each of its violences in a system of rules and 
thus proceeds from domination to domination. 28 

Moreover, Foucault sees intellectuals as working only alongside rather 
than as those who struggle for power, working locally and regionally. 
Finally, in opposition to modernity, he calls for a history that is parodic, 
dissociative, and satirical. These must be seen as positive steps. Foucault 
is attempting to oppose the establishment of the relations of the colonizer 
to the colonized. But what is the positive result? 

Foucault is a complex thinker whose situation as a colonizer who resists 
imposes even more complexity and ambiguity on his ideas. I do not 
pretend to present a comprehensive account of his work here, but rather 
to make just two arguments. First, despite his obvious sympathy for those 
who are subjugated in various ways, he writes from the perspective of the 
dominator, “the self-proclaimed majority.” Second and related, perhaps 
in part because power relations are less visible to those who are in a 
position to dominate others, systematically unequal relations of power 
ultimately vanish from Foucault’s account of power—a strange and ironic 
charge to make against someone who is attempting to illuminate power 
relations. 

Before I make these arguments I should insert some qualifications. It 
should be noted that Foucault himself may recognize that he is in the 



166 / Nancy Hartsock 


position of the colonizer who resists. He recognizes that the last ten to 
fifteen years have changed some features of the intellectual landscape. He 
notes that the most recent period has been characterized by a variety of 
dispersed and discontinuous offensives and an “insurrection of subjugated 
knowledges.” 29 He adds that what has emerged is a sense of 

... the increasing vulnerability to criticism of things, institutions, 
practices, discourses. A certain fragility has been discovered in the very 
bedrock of existence . . . even . . . [those] aspects of it that are most 
familiar, most solid, and most intimately related to our bodies and to 
our everyday behavior.’ 

At another point in the essay cited, he refers to contemporary intellectuals 
as “fragile inheritors.” Thus, one might argue that Foucault himself recog¬ 
nizes the effects of decolonization and the revolt of many dominated 
groups. All this can only make my argument, that he does not offer a 
theory of power adequate to the analysis of gender, more difficult to 
support. 

I will go even further and note that Foucault makes a number of 
important contributions to our understanding of contemporary social rela¬ 
tions. One can cite his accounts of the development of the confession as 
a means of producing power by requiring those who are to be dominated 
to take the initiative. One can note as well his substitution of domination/ 
subjugation for the traditional problem of sovereignty/obedience. In addi¬ 
tion, his development of the concept of disciplinary power, a power which 
possesses, in a sense, the same possibilities for expansion as capital 
itself, marks a major advance. One might continue to enumerate his 
contributions, but I will leave that to his disciples. Instead, what I want 
to argue here is that Foucault reproduces in his work the situation of the 
colonizer who resists [and in so doing renders his work inadequate and 
even irrelevant to the needs of the colonized or the dominated]. So, let 
me return to the two central points I want to make. 

Foucault’s Perspective 

In sum, reading Foucault persuades me that Foucault’s world is not my 
world but is instead a world in which I feel profoundly alien. Indeed, 
when he argues that this is our world, I am reminded of a joke told about 
two U.S. comic book figures—the Lone Ranger and Tonto, “his faithful 
Indian companion” (and subordinate). As the story goes, the two are 
chased and then surrounded by hostile Indians. As he comes to recognize 
their danger, the Long Ranger turns to Tonto and asks, “What do we do 
now?” To which Tonto replies, “What do you mean, ‘we,’ white boy?” 



Foucault on Power / 167 


Foucault’s is a world in which things move, rather than people, a world 
in which subjects become obliterated or, rather, recreated as passive 
objects, a world in which passivity or refusal represent the only possible 
choices. Thus, Foucault writes, the confession “detached itself’ from 
religion and “emigrated” toward pedagogy,” or he notes that “hypotheses 
offer themselves.” 32 Moreover, he argues that subjects not only cease to 
be sovereign but also that external forces such as power are given access 
even to the body and thus are the forces which constitute the subject as 
a kind of effect. 33 

One commentator has argued that one’s concept of power is importantly 
shaped by the reason why one wishes to think about power in the first 
place. He goes on to set several possibilities. First, you might imagine 
what you could do if you had power. Second, you might speculate about 
what you would imagine if you had power. Third, you might want to 
assess what power you would need to initiate a new order. Or, fourth, 
you might want to postulate a range of things outside any form of power 
we presently understand. Foucault, he argues correctly, is attracted by the 
first two. Thus, Foucault’s imagination of power is “with” rather than 
“against” power. 14 Said gives no “textual” evidence to support his asser¬ 
tions. But I believe there are a number of indications that Foucault is “with 
power,” that is, understands the world from the perspective of the ruling 
group. First, from the perspective of the ruling group, other “knowledges” 
would appear to be illegitimate or “not allowed to function within official 
knowledge,” as Foucault himself says of workers’ knowledge. 35 They 
would appear to be, as Foucault has variously categorized them, “insurrec¬ 
tionary,” “disordered,” “fragmentary,” lacking “autonomous life.” 36 To 
simply characterize the variety of “counter-discourses” or “antisciences” 
as nonsystematic negates the fact that they rest on organized and indeed 
material bases. 17 Second, and related, Foucault calls only for resistance 
and exposure of the system of power relations. Moreover, he is often 
vague about what exactly this means. Thus, he argues only that one should 
“entertain the claims” of subjugated knowledges or bring them “into 
play.” 38 Specifically, he argues that the task for intellectuals is less to 
become part of movements for fundamental change and more to struggle 
against the forms of power that can transform these movements into 
instruments of domination. 

Perhaps this stress on resistance rather than transformation is due to 
Foucault’s profound pessimism. Power appears to him as ever expanding 
and invading. It may even attempt to “annex” the counter-discourses that 
have developed. 11 ' The dangers of going beyond resistance to power are 
nowhere more clearly stated than in Foucault’s response to one interviewer 
who asked what might replace the present system. He responded that to 
even imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present 



168 / Nancy Hartsock 


system. Even more sinister, he added that perhaps this is what happened 
in the Soviet Union, thus suggesting that Stalinism might be the most 
likely outcome of efforts at social transformation. 40 Foucault’s insistence 
on simply resisting power is carried even further in his arguments that one 
must avoid claims to scientific knowledge. In particular, one should not 
claim Marxism as a science because to do so would invest it with the 
harmful effects of the power of science in modem culture. 41 Foucault then, 
despite his stated aims of producing an account of power which will enable 
and facilitate resistance and opposition, instead adopts the position of 
what he has termed official knowledge with regard to the knowledge of 
the dominated and reinforces the relations of domination in our society by 
insisting that those of us who have been marginalized remain at the 
margins. 

The Evanescence of Power 

Despite Foucault’s efforts to develop an account of power, and precisely 
because of his perspective as the colonizer who resists, systematic power 
relations ultimately vanish in his work. This may be related to my first 
point: Domination, viewed from above, is more likely to appear as equal¬ 
ity. Foucault has a great deal to say about what exactly he means by 
power. Power 

must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force 
relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which 
constitute their own organization; as the process which, through cease¬ 
less struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses 
them; or on the contrary, the disjunctions and contradictions which 
isolate them from one another; and lastly, as the strategies in which 
they effect. 42 

(A very complicated definition.) He goes on to argue that power is “perma¬ 
nent, repetitious, and self reproducing. It is not a thing acquired but rather 
exists in its exercise. Moreover, power relations are not separate from 
other relations but are contained within them.” At the same time (and 
perhaps contradictorily) power relations are both intentional and subjec¬ 
tive, although Foucault is careful to point out that there is no headquarters 
which sets the direction. 4 ' His account of power is perhaps unique in that 
he argues that wherever there is power, there is resistance. 

Much of what Foucault has to say about power stresses the systemic 
nature of power and its presence in multiple social relations. At the same 
time, however, his stress on hetereogeneity and the specificity of each 
situation leads him to lose track of social structures and instead to focus 



Foucault on Power / 169 


on how individuals experience and exercise power. Individuals, he argues, 
circulate among the threads of power. They “are always in the position of 
simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power.” 44 Individuals are 
to be seen not as an atom which power strikes, but rather the fact that 
certain bodies and discourses are constituted as individuals is an effect of 
power. Thus, power must not be seen as either a single individual dominat¬ 
ing others or as one group or class dominating others. 45 

With this move Foucault has made it very difficult to locate domination, 
including domination in gender relations. He has on the one hand claimed 
that individuals are constituted by power relations, but he has argued 
against their constitution by relations such as the domination of one group 
by another. That is, his account makes room only for abstract individuals, 
not women, men, or workers. 

Foucault takes yet another step toward making power disappear when 
he proposes the image of a net as a way to understand power. For example, 
he argues that the nineteenth-century family should be understood as a 
“network of pleasures and powers linked together at multiple points,” a 
formulation which fails to take account of the important power differentials 
within the family. 46 The image of the net ironically allows (even facilitates) 
his ignoring of power relations while claiming to elucidate them. Thus, 
he argues that power is exercised generally through a “net-like organiza¬ 
tion” and that individuals “circulate between its threads.” 47 Domination is 
not a part of this image; rather, the image of a network in which we all 
participate carries implications of equality and agency rather than the 
systematic domination of the many by the few. Moreover, at times Fou¬ 
cault seems to suggest that not only are we equals but that those of us at 
the bottom are in some sense responsible for our situations: Power, he 
argues, comes from below. There is no binary opposition between rulers 
and ruled, but rather manifold relations of force that take shape in the 
machinery of production, or families, and so forth, and then become the 
basis for “wide ranging effects of cleavage that run through the social 
body as a whole.” 48 Certainly in the analysis of power, Foucault argues 
that rather than begin from the center or the top—the sovereignty— 
one should conduct an ascending analysis of power, starting from the 
“infinitesimal mechanisms” which each have their own history. One can 
then see how these have been colonized and transformed into more global 
forms of domination. It is certainly true that dominated groups participate 
in their own domination. But rather than stop with the fact of participation, 
we would learn a great deal more by focusing on the means by which this 
participation is exacted. Foucault’s argument for an “ascending analysis” 
of power could lead us to engage in a version of blaming the victim. 

Finally, Foucault asserts that power must be understood as “capillary,” 
that it must be analyzed at its extremities. 49 He gives the example of 



170 / Nancy Hartsock 


locating power not in sovereignty but in local material institutions, such 
as torture and imprisonment. But the image of capillary power is one 
which points to the conclusion that power is everywhere. After all, in 
physical terms, where do we not have capillaries? Indeed, Foucault fre¬ 
quently uses language which argues that power “pervades the entire social 
body,” or is “omnipresent.” 50 Thus, all of social life comes to be a network 
of power relations—relations which should be analyzed not at the level 
of large-scale social structures but rather at very local, individual levels. 
Moreover, Foucault notes important resemblances between such diverse 
things as schools and prisons, or the development of sexuality in the 
family and the institutions of “perversion.” The whole thing comes to look 
very homogeneous. Power is everywhere, and so ultimately nowhere. 

In the end, Foucault appears to endorse a one-sided wholesale rejection 
of modernity and to do so without a conception of what is to replace it. 
Indeed, some have argued persuasively that because Foucault refuses both 
the ground of foundationalism and the “ungrounded hope” endorsed by 
liberals such as Rorty, he stands on no ground at all and thus fails to 
give any reasons for resistance. Foucault suggests that if our resistance 
succeeded, we would simply be changing one discursive identity for 
another and in the process create new oppressions. 51 

The “majority” and those like Foucault who adopt the perspective of 
the “majority” or the powerful can probably perform the greatest possible 
political service by resisting and by refusing the overconfidence of the 
past. But the message we get from them is either that we should abandon 
the project of modernity and substitute a conversation (as Richard Rorty 
suggests) or that we should simply take up a posture of resistance as the 
only strategy open to us. But if we are not to abandon the project of 
creating a new and more just society, neither of these options will work 
for us. 

Toward Theories for Women 

Those of us who have been marginalized by the transcendental voice 
of universalizing theory need to do something other than ignore power 
relations as Rorty does or resist them as figures such as Foucault and 
Lyotard suggest. We need to transform them, and to do so, we need a 
revised and reconstructed theory (indebted to Marx among others) with 
several important features. 

First, rather than getting rid of subjectivity or notions of the subject, as 
Foucault does and substituting his notion of the individual as an effect of 
power relations, we need to engage in the historical, political, and theoreti¬ 
cal process of constituting ourselves as subjects as well as objects of 
history. We need to recognize that we can be the makers of history as well 



Foucault on Power / 171 


as the objects of those who have made history. Our nonbeing was the 
condition of being of the One, the center, the taken-for-granted ability of 
one small segment of the population to speak for all; our various efforts 
to constitute ourselves as subjects (through struggles for colonial indepen¬ 
dence, racial and sexual liberation struggles, and so on) were fundamental 
to creating the preconditions for the current questioning of universalist 
claims. But, 1 believe, we need to sort out who we really are. Put differ¬ 
ently, we need to dissolve the false “we” I have been using into its real 
multiplicity and variety and out of this concrete multiplicity build an 
account of the world as seen from the margins, an account which can 
expose the falseness of the view from the top and can transform the 
margins as well as the center. The point is to develop an account of 
the world which treats our perspectives not as subjugated or disruptive 
knowledges, but as primary and constitutive of a different world. 

It may be objected that I am calling for the construction of another 
totalizing and falsely universal discourse. But that is to be imprisoned by 
the alternatives imposed by Enlightenment thought and postmodernism; 
Either one must adopt the perspective of the transcendental and disembod¬ 
ied voice of “reason” or one must abandon the goal of accurate and 
systematic knowledge of the world. Other possibilities exist and must 
be (perhaps can only be) developed by hitherto marginalized voices. 
Moreover, our history of marginalization will work against creating a 
totalizing discourse. This is not to argue that oppression creates “better” 
people: On the contrary, the experience of domination and marginalization 
leaves many scars. Rather, it is to note that marginalized groups are far 
less likely to mistake themselves for the universal “man.” We are well 
aware that we are not the universal man who can assume his experience 
of the world is the experience of all. But even if we will not make the 
mistake of assuming our experience of the world is the experience of all, 
we still need to name and describe our diverse experiences. What are our 
commonalities? What are our differences? How can we transform our 
imposed Otherness into a self-defined specificity? 

Second, we must do our work on an epistemological base that indicates 
that knowledge is possible—not just conversation or a discourse on how 
it is that power relations work. Conversation as a goal is fine; understand¬ 
ing how power works in oppressive societies is important. But if we are 
to construct a new society, we need to be assured that some systematic 
knowledge about our world and ourselves is possible. Those (simply) 
critical of modernity can call into question whether we ever really knew 
the world (and a good case can be made that “they” at least did not). They 
are in fact right that they have not known the world as it is rather than as 
they wished and needed it to be; they created their world not only in their 
own image but in the image of their fantasies. To create a world that 



172 / Nancy Hartsock 


expresses our own various and diverse images, we need to understand 
how it works. 

Third, we need a theory of power that recognizes that our practical daily 
activity contains an understanding of the world—subjugated perhaps, but 
present. Here I am reaffirming Gramsci’s argument that everyone is an 
intellectual and that each of us has an epistemology. The point, then, for 
“minority” theories is to “read out” the epistemologies in our various 
practices. I have argued elsewhere for a “standpoint” epistemology—an 
account of the world with great similarities to Marx’s fundamental stance. 
While 1 would modify some of what 1 argued there, I would still insist 
that we must not give up the claim that material life (class position in 
Marxist theory) not only structures but sets limits on the understanding of 
social relations, and that, in systems of domination, the vision available 
to the rulers will be both partial and will reverse the real order of things. 

Fourth, our understanding of power needs to recognize the difficulty of 
creating alternatives. The ruling class, race, and gender actively structure 
the material-social relations in which all the parties are forced to partici¬ 
pate; their vision, therefore, cannot be dismissed as simply false or mis¬ 
guided. In consequence, the oppressed groups must struggle for their 
own understandings which will represent achievements requiring both 
theorizing and the education which grows from political struggle. 

Fifth, as an engaged vision, the understanding of the oppressed exposes 
the relations among people as inhuman and thus contains a call to political 
action. That is, a theory of power for women, for the oppressed, is not 
one that leads to a turning away from engagement but rather one that is 
a call for change and participation in altering power relations. 

The critical steps are, first, using what we know about our lives as a 
basis for critique of the dominant culture and, second, creating alterna¬ 
tives. When the various “minority” experiences have been described and 
when the significance of these experiences as a ground for critique of the 
dominant institutions and ideologies of society is better recognized, we 
will have at least the tools to begin to construct an account of the world 
sensitive to the realities of race and gender as well as class. To paraphrase 
Marx, the point is to change the world, not simply to redescribe ourselves 
or reinterpret the world yet again. 

Notes 

1. See, for example, David Bell, Power, Influence, and Authority (New York: 
Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 8. 

2. See my book Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical 
Materialism (New York: Longman, 1983; Boston: Northeastern University 
Press, 1984). 



Foucault on Power / 173 


3. My point here is similar to W. B. Gallie’s argument that power is an 
“essentially contested” concept. Power can be categorized as such a concept 
because it is internally complex, open, and used both aggressively and 
defensively. Gallie, however, seems not to recognize the epistemological 
implications of his position. 

4. Jean-Fran^ois Lyotard, The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowl¬ 
edge, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 81. 

5. My language requires that I insert qualification and clarification: I will be 
using a we/they language. But while it is clear that “they” represent the 
ruling race, class, and gender, the “we” refers to a “we” who are not and will 
never be a unitary group, a “we” artificially constructed by the totalizing, 
Eurocentric, masculine discourse of the Enlightenment. I do not mean to 
suggest that white Western women share the material situation of the 
colonized peoples, but rather to argue that we share similar positions in the 
ideology of the Enlightenment. 

6. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (New York: 
Knopf, 1953), p. 72. 

7. Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (Boston: Beacon Press, 
1967), p. 82. 

8. For example, compare de Beauvoir’s statement that “at the moment when 
man asserts himself as subject and free being, the idea of the other arises.” 
(de Beauvoir, 1953, p. 73). 

9. Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, p. 83. 

10. Ibid., p. 85. 

11. Ibid., p. 86. 

12. Ibid., pp. 92, 95, 113. 

13. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Press, 1978), p. 3. 

14. Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, pp. 71-72. 

15. Edward Said, Orientalism, pp. 3-8. 

16. Ibid., pp. 97, 108. See also the reference to the tyrannical observer. 

17. Nancy Jay, “Gender and Dichotomy,” Feminist Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1, 
Spring 1981, p. 42. 

18. Ibid., p. 47. 

19. This is Jay’s question which I have made my own. 

20. Bernice Reagon, “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century,” Home Girls, 
ed. Barbara Smith (New York: Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 
1983), p. 359. 

21. My argument about Foucault comes from a much more lengthy chapter on 
him in my forthcoming publication, Post-Modernism and Political Chance. 

22. Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, pp. xiv-xv. 

23. Ibid., pp. 20-21. 



174 / Nancy Hartsock 


24. Ibid., p. 41. 

25. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (Harper & Row, 1972), 
pp. 139-164. 

26. Nancy Fraser, “Foucault’s Body Language: A Post-Humanist Political Rhet¬ 
oric?” Salmagundi, Vol. 61, Fall 1983, p. 59. 

27. Charles Taylor, “Foucault on Freedom and Truth,” Political Theory, Vol. 
12, May 1984, pp. 175-176. 

28. Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays 
and Interviews, ed. Donald Bouchard (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University 
Press, 1977), p. 151. 

29. Michel Foucault, Power!Knowledge (New York: Pantheon, 1980), pp. 79, 
81. 

30. Foucault, Power!Knowledge p. 80. 

31. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: 
Pantheon, 1978), p. 68. 

32. Foucault, Power!Knowledge, p. 91. 

33. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, pp. 142-143. 

34. Edward Said, “Foucault and the Imagination of Power,” Foucault: A Criti¬ 
cal Reader, ed. David Hoy (New York: Pantheon, 1986), p. 151. 

35. Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, p. 219. 

36. Foucault, Power!Knowledge, pp. 81, 85-86. 

37. Said, “Foucault and the Imagination of Power,” p. 154. 

38. Foucault, Power!Knowledge, pp. 83, 85. 

39. Ibid., p. 88. 

40. Foucault, Language Counter-Memory, Practice, p. 230. 

41. Foucault, Power!Knowledge, pp. 84-85. 

42. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, pp. 92-93. 

43. Foucault, Power!Knowledge, p. 97. 

44. Ibid., p. 98. 

45. Ibid. 

46. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 45. 

47. Foucault, Power!Knowledge, p. 98. 

48. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 94. 

49. Foucault, Power!Knowledge, p. 95. 

50. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, pp. 92-93. 

51. Gad Horowitz, “The Foucaultian Impasse: No Sex, No Self, No Revolu¬ 
tion,” Political Theory, Vol. 16, No. 1, February 1987, pp. 63-64. 



Foucault on Power / 175 


References 

de Beauvoir, Simone. 1953. The Second Sex. Translated by H. M. Parshley. 
New York: Knopf. 

Foucault, Michel. 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Harper & 
Row. 

-. 1978, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon. 

-. 1987. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Inter¬ 
views. Edited by Donald Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 
-. 1980. Power!Knowledge. Edited by Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon. 

Fraser, Nancy. 1983. “Foucault’s Body Language: A Post-Humanist Political 
Rhetoric?” Salmagundi: 61: 55-70. 

Gallie, W. B. 1955-1956. "Essentially Contested Concepts.” Proceedings of the 
Artistotelian Society 56: 167-198. 

Hartsock, Nancy. 1983. “Difference and Domination in the Women’s Movement: 
The Dialect of Theory and Practice.” Class, Race, and Sex: The Dynamics 
of Control. Edited by Amy Swerdlow and Hanna Lesinger. Boston: G.K. 
Hall. 

-. 1984. Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Material¬ 
ism. New York: Longman.(Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1983). 
Hooks, Bell. 1982. Ain't I a Woman? Boston: South End Press. 

Horowitz, Gad. 1987. “The Foucaultian Impasse: No Sex, No Self, No Revolu¬ 
tion.” Political Theory 15: 61-81. 

Jay, Nancy. 1981. “Gender and Dichotomy.” Feminist Studies 7: 38-56. 

Lyotard, Jean-Frangois. 1984. The Post-Modern Condition: a Report on Knowl¬ 
edge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 

Memmi, Albert. 1967. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Boston: Beacon Press. 
Reagon, Bernice. 1983. “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century.” Home Girls. 

Edited by Barbara Smith. New York: Kitchen Table Women of Color Press. 
Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Press. 

-1986. “Foucault and the Imagination of Power.” Foucault: A Critical 

Reader. Edited by David Hoy. New York: Pantheon. 

Taylor, Charles. 1984. “Foucault on Freedom and Truth.” Political Theory 12: 
152-183. 



8 


Travels in the Postmodern: 
Making Sense of the Local 

Elspeth Probyti 


In thinking through the concept of the local and how it might be of use 
to feminist theory despite or because of its various postmodern articula¬ 
tions, an article by Adrienne Rich (1986) comes to mind. In her “Notes 
toward a Politics of Location” Rich describes a girlhood game, or practice, 
of addressing letters to her friend which began with the street address and 
ended via continent, nation, and hemisphere with the postal area of the 
universe. Being an “army brat,” the mid-atlantic product of the “father- 
land” (England), a colony (Canada), and sporadically at home in the 
residual culture of Wales, this was, for me, a game that came naturally. 
I suppose that the changes of schools and countries could in some small 
part be controlled through this spatial game of ordering the world. In some 
ways it was a counterpoint to the early and constant reminder that being 
from “everywhere” meant that on the playground you were no one (no 
one’s cousin or niece or neighbor since birth). The construction of a wider 
unity and global possibilities served to displace a rather isolated local. 

Rich’s description of the pastime, however, places more emphasis on 
the centrality of the local: “your own house as a tiny fleck on an ever- 
widening landscape, or as the center of it all from which the circles 
expanded into the infinite unknown” (p. 212). Further on in the same 
article. Rich problematizes this memory as she asks: “At the center of 
what?” (p. 212). In her elegant manner. Rich raises here one of the crucial 
questions now facing feminism and, more generally. Western thought; in 
creating our own centers and our own locals, we tend to forget that our 
centers displace others into the peripheries of our making. 

For Rich, this center becomes undone before the demands of “the 


My thanks to Marty Allor and Larry Grossberg for their invaluable comments and 
conversations on these subjects. 


176 



Travels in the Postmodern / 177 


infinite unknown” and that unknown, in turn, demands a little modesty in 
the place of an assured mastery. This is to realize that certain claims of 
solidarity (“As a woman my country is the whole world,” (p. 212) come 
perilously close to colonizing others’ experiences. It becomes increasingly 
difficult to think of the world ordered from the vantage point of one (white) 
woman. In another register, the ontological conceit of the Western subject 
becomes untenable. 

Against this totalizing gaze, Rich points out that we need to replace the 
assumption of universalism and construct a feminist theory that starts from 
the fragments of one’s own body. It is important to emphasize that, 
following Rich, it is “my body” and not “the body” which becomes the 
site and “the grounds from which to speak as women” (p. 213). The body 
here is definitely not a mythic every-body, and the impulse within Rich’s 
project is to combine the specificity of individual female bodies with a 
larger feminist politics. Furthermore, the body of which Rich speaks is 
markedly her own and the contours that she explores (of being a white 
Jewish lesbian) are not projected onto a universal female body. Thus, 
Rich differs from an earlier feminist phase which heralded womanhood 
above the differences of class, race, age, and sexual preference. The white 
middle-class face of feminism is now at least acknowledged. The idea 
that anyone could speak for one Woman and all women has become 
increasingly transparent, but how to speak without the comfort of a prelim¬ 
inary gesture toward the shared ground of women’s common oppressions 
is, however, unresolved. 

In this chapter I want to explore a central problematic within feminist 
cultural theory: Whether the subaltern can speak. 1 I see this problematic 
composed of a number of intersecting critical questions: the epistemologi¬ 
cal constitution of knowledge, the ontology of the questioning subject, 
and the conjunctural question of where and how we may speak. I will 
organize this exploration around three current metaphors: locale, location, 
and local. In taking up these often bandied about terms, and in arranging 
them together, I want to focus on the ground they circle over. Again and 
again we have heard (and also uttered) the need for specificity, as yet 
another postmodernist publication ends with a cry for the “local.” As 
Marxists of different shades move into the postmodern, it seems that an 
unspecified local becomes the site for an unnamed politics. 2 As such, 
local, locale, and location become abstract terms, cut off from a signifying 
ground and serving as signposts with no indication of direction. However, 
a feminist reworking of these metaphors may bring them down to earth; 
doing so may even bring us to consider both the construction of sites and 
the methods of researching sites. In differentiating the concepts of locale, 
location, and local, I want to draw attention to the different levels at which 
the articulation of theory and practice may proceed. In stressing that these 



178 / Elspeth Probyn 


concepts indicate different levels of abstraction, I want to emphasize that 
theoretical constructs allow for different forms of practice; the “ground” 
of practice is, after all, not an empirically knowable entity but lies in our 
ways of thinking. Following Meaghan Morris, I’ll emphasize both the 
spatial and temporal significance of how we come to know. The triad of 
local, locale, and location thus raises epistemological questions of what 
constitutes knowledge: of where we speak from and which voices are 
sanctioned. The ways in which women’s practices and experiences have 
been historically dismissed as local requires that we look at what Morris 
(1988) calls the “gendering of the spatio-temporal operations (movement/ 
placement) ...” (p. 2). 

In this vein, the concept of “locale” will be used to designate a place 
that is the setting for a particular event. I take this “place” as both a 
discursive and nondiscursive arrangement which holds a gendered event, 
the home being the most obvious example. In distinction, “local” is that 
directly issuing from or related to a particular time. Without falling into 
the romanticism of authenticity, I think that we can identify feminist 
practices which are directly stitched into the place and time which give 
rise to them. Finally, by “location” I refer to the methods by which one 
comes to locate sites of research. Through location knowledges are ordered 
into sequences which are congruent with previously established categories 
of knowledge. Location, then, delineates what we may hold as knowable 
and, following Foucault, renders certain experiences “true” and “scien¬ 
tific” while excluding others. Thus, the epistemology that this suggests 
most often works to fix the subaltern outside the sanctified boundaries of 
knowledge, determining the knowledge of the subaltern as peripheral 
and inconsequential (not fitting in with prearranged sequences). I want, 
therefore, to question the hierarchical ordering of knowledge. 

The temporal-spatial mode I propose here sees theory and practice as 
intercalated and lateral and as such invokes Jean-Francois Lyotard’s (1986) 
anaclitic mode of theorizing. His notion of un proces en ana- refutes 
modernist dichotomies and emphasizes the way in which concepts, prac¬ 
tices, and fragments rest upon and lean on each other (p. 126). While 
certain postmodern tenets run through this chapter, I also wish to retain 
a positive tension between postmodern assumptions and feminist politics. 
Indeed, it could be argued that what has been labeled as the postmodern 
dilemma was precipitated not by the supposed passing of modernism but 
by the questions feminists brought to diverse modernist disciplines. My 
aim here, however, is not to quibble about who was doing postmodernism 
first 3 but rather to use various postmodernist arguments critically, watching 
for holes that could swallow feminism. In this movement we may discover 
other strategies that allow selves and others to articulate together around 
new questions. 



Travels in the Postmodern / 179 


Living in Locale 

It is by now axiomatic that feminism is concerned with the specificities 
of women’s existence. The modes of inquiry may be quite divergent, but 
there is an underlying feeling that women are the subject of study. Of 
course, feminist theory goes beyond this and deconstructs what, in fact, 
it means to say “the subject of study.” It also raises the issue of the 
historical conditions necessary for this formulation to be made. In the 
most interesting work, women are both the researched and the researcher, 
implicitly questioning this relationship. As Rosalind Coward (1985) can¬ 
didly puts it in her book Female Desires: 

My fieldwork has been on myself and on my friends and family, whom 
I have submitted to incessant interrogation about their private lives, 
their hopes and dreams. Quite deliberately these essays aim at no more 
than understanding how the representions directed at women enmesh 
with our actual lives (p. 15). 

In Coward’s case the mode of analysis may vary widely—from high 
Screen theory to looking at how women live the fragmentary narratives 
of soap operas, family dinners, and advice columns—all the while examin¬ 
ing the construction of “being a woman.” In the same book. Coward 
explores the ways in which: 

Feminine positions are produced as responses to the pleasures offered 
to us; our subjectivity and identity are formed in definitions of desire 
which encircle us. These are the experiences which make change such 
a difficult and daunting task, for female desire is constantly lured by 
discourses which sustain male privilege (p. 16). 

In thinking about how women live with representations of their desire. 
Coward acknowledges that at some level we invest in these desires. We 
cannot live outside representations of ideal pleasures, and there is no clear 
dividing line between an authentic feminine experience and one that along 
the way may have been “man-made.” In other words, we are always 
negotiating various locales; the ideal articulation of place and event recedes 
before us. The family dinners consumed can never exactly match the 
happy ideal, and the makeup used is never quite the way it was supposed 
to look. In Coward’s analysis of female desires, we can’t ever quite escape 
the knowledge that it’s never exactly the way “it should be.” 

The recognition that our lives never quite match up with the representa¬ 
tion has been with us for quite some time. Against Coward’s implicit “so 
what,” early feminist thinking saw it differently. In The Feminine Mystique 



180 / Elspeth Probyn 


Betty Friedan (1963) raised “the problem that has no name” (p. 11). As 
Friedan described it: 

Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, 
shopped for groceries, matched slip cover material, ate peanut butter 
sandwiches with her children ... lay beside her husband at night— 
she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?” 

(p. ID- 

Here we see the willing construction of place, the perfect home is all set 
up and yet the woman asks herself when it’s going to start. Friedan’s 
“problem with no name” is actually the question that can’t be asked. 
However, this feeling of all dressed up and nowhere to go, “the silent 
question [of] is this all?” recognizes the disjuncture between place and 
event. This was precisely the importance of Friedan’s book—that in some 
way the women who read it recognized themselves. On another level, 
however, Friedan’s description of the entrapment of locale doesn’t quite 
give women the credit of understanding their situation. Women’s locale 
(the suburban home) is ineluctably enticing and within it women were 
“free to chose automobiles, clothes, appliances, supermarkets; she had 
everything that women ever dreamed of” (p. 13). The home, therefore, 
is the locale built up around women, a locale of their own design. Within 
Friedan’s analysis this locale is the defining feature of women’s existence. 
Unfortunately, by ignoring the historical discourses that come to define 
women’s existence as such, Friedan collapses the place (home) with the 
event (the family). In the Second Stage (1981) she defends the locale of 
family and home as: 

the symbol of that last area where one had any hope of control over 
one’s destiny, of meeting one’s most basic human needs, of nourishing 
that core of personhood threatened by vast impersonal institutions and 
uncontrollable corporate and government bureaucracies (in Barrett and 
McIntosh, 1982, p. 17). 

Here the locale of home is defined and must be defended against others; 
it becomes the women’s “natural” domain. In true humanist fashion, 
Friedan wants to replay the private/public dichotomy as she places the 
family outside of ideology. 

In contrast to Friedan’s construction of the family as private locale, 
Michele Barrett and Mary McIntosh directly address the “two-fold charac¬ 
ter of ‘the family’ ” (p. 8). While they recognize the subjective experience 
and pleasures that the place of the family may offer, they are quick to 
point out the ways in which the family serves to reproduce patriarchal 



Travels in the Postmodern / 181 


structures of power. This separation of the family into place and event 
allows Barrett and McIntosh to recognize “the powerful appeal of the 
family, to acknowledge the real satisfactions that it can offer . . . (p. 9). 
These satisfactions are undoubtedly contradictory (cooking the Sunday 
dinner may be pleasurable but it’s still unpaid). Indeed, it is in raising the 
contradictions of the family that Barrett and McIntosh denaturalize its 
satisfactions. Much like Coward’s analysis of female pleasures, both the 
affective lure of place and the ideological working of event are captured 
here. This two-pronged analysis then allows for the recognition of lived 
contrarieties; we may invest in these structures while remaining aware of 
our ideological positioning. In this way the family as locale indicates a 
certain refiexivity and moves us away from Friedan’s formulation of 
women as domestic dupes, only able to silently wonder about “the problem 
that has no name.” 

While Barrett and McIntosh’s account of domestic practice certainly 
moves beyond Friedan’s alienated and anonymous housewives, the crucial 
fact of women’s investment in oppressive events is not fully dealt with. 
Their book, The Antisocial Family (1982), is a thorough materialist 
analysis of the workings of the family as event, as a major part of capitalist 
machinery. The affectivity of this machine is acknowledged but not fully 
developed. In other words, we see how the family works to reproduce the 
conditions of a fundamentally unjust society (we understand the reasons 
why the event is taking place), but there is little indication of why women 
would invest in this story (there is no pull of place). To rephrase this in 
Althusserian terms, Barrett and McIntosh are concerned with how women 
are “hailed” by the discursive apparatus of the family; it may be in multiple 
and contradictory ways, but they are nonetheless “interpellated.” In con¬ 
trast to this line of analysis, Valerie Walkerdine (1986) proposes the notion 
of “positive recognition” to describe “what places the subject in the 
historical moment” (p. 191). Walkerdine’s formulation works against 
Althusser’s conception of “mis-recognition” which for her carries “nega¬ 
tive connotations for the study of the ideological (i.e., always-already 
distorting) interpellation” (p. 191). Against the poststructuralist assertion 
that we are “always-already positioned,” Walkerdine wants to introduce 
a more fluid model of subject formation. In thinking through how we are 
positioned by gender, class, and race, she questions the ways in which 
(subculture) researchers tend to take “discourse at face value” (p. 192). 
We can no longer take the meanings of discourses for granted and must 
turn to the ways in which individuals may be differently positioned by 
them. Gendered practices (within the home, at school, the use of media, 
and so forth) can therefore not be read off the surface; their meanings to 
individual women and possible political articulations are never completely 
guaranteed. Furthermore, the concept of recognition brings together two 



182 / Elspeth Probyn 


crucial problematics: First, it rearticulates “the positivity of how domestic 
relations are lived” (p. 192), and second, it demands that the position 
of the researcher vis-a-vis the researched be denaturalized. The veil of 
objectivity, which in a scientific model works to erase the researcher’s 
physical and institutional presence from the scene to be studied, must be 
pulled down. The researcher herself recognizes the affectivity, or the pull 
of the ideological relations she is studying. As Walkerdine realized: “Often 
when interviewing the participants I felt that ‘I knew what they meant', 
that I recognized how the practices were regulated or that 1 understood 
what it was like to be a participant” (p. 192). 

In recognizing a locale we see both the regulation of practices and why 
those practices in themselves might also be the source of mixed pleasures. 
This model does not seek to reify those practices; on the contrary in 
Walkerdine’s formulation, it is to question “how we struggle to become 
subjects and how we resist provided subjectivities in relation to the regula¬ 
tive power of modem social apparatuses” (p. 194). This is also to remem¬ 
ber that we negotiate our locales and that we are continuously working to 
make sense of and articulate both place and event. Moreover, as we 
approach others’ locales we must keep in mind that women are never 
simply fixed within locale. We may live within patriarchy but at different 
levels, and in different ways the struggle to rearticulate locale continues. 
Thus, as Janice Radway has recently pointed out, “we share with others in 
our everywhere-mediated society the point of view of the active, producing 
bricoleur . . . (Radway, 1987). 

Circumventing Location 

In this formulation the bricoleur actively pieces together different signs 
and produces new (and sometimes unsanctioned) meanings; the bricoleur 
is always in the process of fashioning her various locales. The concept of 
“locale” then serves to emphasize the lived contradictions of place and 
event. In acknowledging that we are daily involved in the reproduction of 
patriarchy we can nonetheless temper a vision of strict interpellation with 
the recognition that discourses are negotiated. Individuals live in complex 
places and differentiate the pull of events. However, if we are to take 
seriously these relations of place and event, we have to consider the 
knowledges produced in their interaction. 

Living with contradictions does not necessarily enable one to speak of 
them, and in fact for concrete reasons, it may be dangerous to do so. 
The recognition that the subaltern works across her positioning does not 
immediately entail a form of free agency. Whether the subaltern can speak 
is still in doubt. Gayatri Spivak (1988) sees the question in itself as 
deficient: Why indeed should the subaltern speak when she will only be 



Travels in the Postmodern / 183 


rendered “a native informant for first-world intellectuals interested in the 
voice of the Other” (p. 284). Spivak’s response is that “the subaltern 
women will be as mute as ever” (p. 295). The question of whether the 
subaltern can speak cannot, for Spivak be asked. Indeed, Spivak sees the 
issue as grounded in a form of “epistemic violence” (pp. 281-283). 
The question of whether the subaltern can speak is in fact an historical 
subterfuge that “renders the place of the investigator transparent” (p. 284). 
The ontology of the Western subject necessitates and creates the other: 
the silent subaltern. Spivak thus reminds us that questions are never 
innocent even when spoken by well-meaning individuals. The researcher, 
male or female, is never outside the cultural, political, and economic 
conditions that allow for only certain questions to be formulated. Spivak’s 
observation that . . epistemic violence is the remotely orchestrated, far- 
flung and heterogeneous project to constitute the colonial subject as Other” 
is central to the process I’ve called location. 

One of the common-sense meanings of “location” refers to a set con¬ 
structed outside of a movie studio. While this is not one of the principle 
ways in which I’ll be using this term, it does figure prominently in some 
postmodernist projects. In Jean Baudrillard’s work (the problematic of) 
the construction of other is erased through a denial of representation. It is 
rendered as an impossible idea; the masses are impossible, unrepresent¬ 
able, and therefore silent (1983). In case they are not sufficiently muted 
by his epistemological violence, Baudrillard (1986) has taken to traveling: 

Rouler est une forme spectaculaire d'amnesie. Tout a decouvrir, tout a 
efacer ” (p. 25). Here we find that if the intellectual moves quick enough, 
any stray voices will be “erased,” lost in the “amnesia” of travel. Through 
the movement of location, any part of the world can be recreated or made 
to stand in for another. Moreover, it is seldom questioned whether the set 
is an accurate portrayal of a particular site. Thus, the cover of his book 
Amerique (1986) has Montreal standing in for the generic expanse of 
middle America; it’s just like in the movies as Canadian locals are dressed 
up in American location. As Morris (1988) has said of Baudrillard (as one 
of the theorists of travel): 


In the world of the third-order simulacra, the encroaching pseudo¬ 
places finally merge to eliminate places entirely. This merger is a 
founding event: once it has taken place, the true (like the real) begins 
to be reproduced in the image of the pseudo, which begins to become 
the true (p. 5). 


For Baudrillard, then, others disappear because they are impossible and 
places become simulacra: postcards without people. If, however, there 



184 / Elspeth Probyn 


are no subjects (other than simulated ones) in Baudrillard’s travel plans, 
a different form of subjectivity has emerged in other postmodern accounts. 

The “nomad” has recently appeared as the model of the Western subject 
wandering through various locations. For Lawrence Grossberg (1987), 
the postmodern requires a nomadic subjectivity. What he is describing 
here seems to run parallel to my discussion of locale: “individuality 
functions as, and is articulated out of, a nomadic wandering through ever- 
changing positions and apparatuses” (p. 38). Although Grossberg wants 
to argue against a Baudrillardian evacuation of subjectivity, the metaphor 
of the nomad unfortunately recalls some of the more unsalubrious aspects 
of tourism. The nomad or the tourist is posed as unthreatening, merely 
passing through; however, his person has questionable effects. Just as 
economically the benefits of tourism return to the first world, the tourist 
and the nomad camouflage the theoretical problematic of the ontological 
implications of Western subjecthood. In Spivak’s terms, the epistemic 
violence continues. 

Location, then, can be seen as explicitly articulating epistemological 
and ontological concerns. I am concerned here with the idea of location 
as both locating or determining sites and as the process of rendering sites 
into sequences. Through this process of siting and sequencing, location 
describes epistemological maneuvers whereby categories of knowledge 
are established and fixed into sequences. It is also that process which 
determines what we experience as knowledge and what we know as 
experience. In Spivak’s argument: 


the whole hierarchical taxonomy of concrete experience which has been 
regarded as completely valid for so long is exactly what has to be got 
under. At the same time one cannot use that as a terrorism on the 
people who were obliged to cathect the place of the other, those whose 
experiences were not quite ‘experience’ (in McRobbie, 1985 p. 9). 


In its hierarchical movement, location insists on a taxonomy of experi¬ 
ence. One doesn’t have to scratch the surface very deeply to find that 
class, race, and gender have a lot to do with whose experiences are on 
top. The classification of experience, moreover, is indivisible from what 
came before and which knowledges stand as previously sanctioned. Loca¬ 
tion, then, also depends on a constructed chronology. What can count 
as knowledge is partially determined by its relationship to previously 
sanctioned equations. To my mind, it was the early work of Michel 
Foucault that most forcefully revealed the historical construction of knowl¬ 
edges. 4 Thus, Foucault, (1973) pointed out that we can “rediscover on 
what basis knowledge and theory became possible; within what space of 



Travels in the Postmodern / 185 


order knowledge was constituted; on the basis of what historical ‘a priori,’ 
and in the element of what possitivity, ideas could appear ...” (p. xxii). 

For Foucault, then, it is what governs statements and the ways in which 
they govern each other that is of importance. It is therefore through a 
process of location, of fixing statements in relation to other established 
statements, that knowledge comes to be ordered. It is through this process 
that the knowledges produced in locale are denigrated as local, subaltern, 
and other. Foucault’s complex model of power suggests that these subal¬ 
tern knowledges are not directly oppressed but are merely occluded; they 
are not brought to light and silently circulate as women’s intuition, ritual, 
and even, instinct. Thus, these experiences are rendered outside of the 
“true” and the “scientific.” 

In taking its itinerary from Foucault, some recent feminist work has 
traveled through unsanctioned histories, resulting in “happy discoveries.” 
Typically, the method of research tends to take the form of random 
searches; after all, how does one look for silences? An example of this 
can be found in Judith Brown’s account of a seventeenth-century lesbian 
nun (1986). Here Brown stumbles across a description of Sister Benedette 
Carlini which causes her to wonder: “What had this nun done to merit 
such harsh words from the twentieth-century archivist who had read and 
inventoried the document” (p. 4). From this seventeenth-century nun’s 
life. Brown is able to pull out some “hitherto unexplored areas of women’s 
sexual lives as well as Renaissance views of female sexuality” (p. 4). This 
type of research is important because it allows us insight into what Foucault 
called the “historical present.” It therefore denaturalizes notions of sexual¬ 
ity as it reveals the historical and ideological process of location. More¬ 
over, this particular example is one instance of working across location; 
the twentieth-century archivist’s judgment and disavowal of the nun is 
what draws Brown to her. This mode of working between and among 
sanctioned categories of knowledge jostles the sequencing of location. 
Both seventeenth- and twentieth-century categories are reworked here, 
rendering possible the emergence of submerged knowledges. As Angela 
McRobbie (1984) has pointed out, other knowledges became possible in 
“working with a consciously loose rather than tight relation in mind. . . . 
Instead of seeking direct causal links or chains, the emphasis is place on 
establishing loose sets of relations, capillary actions and movements, 
spilling out among and between different fields . . . (p. 142). 

Making Sense of the Local 

Postmodernists of various inclinations have pointed out that the world 
is a confusing place to live in right now, that it “is marked by a series of 
events which challenged our ability to make sense of our world and 



186 / Elspeth Probyn 


ourselves, to normality and the future” (Grossberg, 1987, p. 44). While 
it’s probably not a great deal worse than other times and places, the 
omnipresence of everyday cruelties hits home with a seemingly increased 
frequency. Against the apparently unending range of complexities, it is 
tempting to go the route of Baudrillard and others and treat life as simula¬ 
tion and live out the local in abstraction. However, as I have argued, 
there are differences involved in how we describe and think about the 
postmodern and difficult questions that cannot be answered by the panacea 
of locality. The idea that a politics is inscribed on some abstraction we 
call the local and that it can be read by some far-off critic is both ludicrous 
and problematic. As Spivak has cogently put it: “The real critic is not so 
much interested in distancing him or herself, as in being vigilant. To 
universalize the local is a very dangerous thing and no good practice 
comes of it” (in McRobbie, 1985, p. 8). 

This is not to give up on the local but rather to work more deeply in 
and against it. Instead of collapsing the local we have to open it up, to 
work at different levels. At one level we see the articulation of place and 
event within what I’ve called locale. Here we are directed to the struggle 
between being positioned within patriarchal practices and the intertwined 
pleasures that we may experience in our day-to-day living. At the level 
of location, however, we are brought to consider how those experiences 
may be denied and ordered into the periphery. Interwoven through these 
concerns is the very immediate question of whether the subaltern can 
speak. This question requires that we be continually vigilant to the neces¬ 
sity of bringing to the light the submerged conditions that silence others 
and the other of ourselves. The subaltern’s situation is not that of the 
exotic to be saved. Rather, her position is “naturalized” and reinscribed 
over and over again through the practices of locale and location. In order 
for her to ask questions, the ground constructed by these practices must 
be rearranged. 

The surface of social life is indeed complex, articulated as it is by 
historical complexities. Instead of imploding the historical and the situa¬ 
tional into a simulated issue, we have to look at the construction of locale: 
what event is being reproduced in what place and how individuated 
knowledge and experience of locale is circumscribed through the process 
of location. To concretize this, I’ll take one local example. At the time of 
writing, the entire abortion law has been declared unconstitutional in 
Canada. This was brought about by a series of very local occurrences. 
Pro-choice groups in Toronto backed Dr. Henry Morgentaler through a 
string of court cases which ended with the Supreme Court decision that 
the law against abortion was illegal. This occurrence was a local one 
although it happened across Canada and applies to all Canadian women. 
However, the recognition of the law’s unconstitutionality points to the fact 



Travels in the Postmodern / 187 


of locale: the relation of place (women’s bodies) to event (reproduction). 
Effectively what the decision said was that this locale belonged to women 
and that no one could force the event if she did not want it. Finally, this 
decision has set in motion demands for location from various anti-abortion 
groups—that the government set limits and order that a sequence be 
followed through. Through location, scientific categories of knowledge 
are to be fixed upon the woman’s body: Conception equals life; after the 
first trimester life occurs, and so forth. Now what we can see here is that 
this one practice is complexly articulated and embedded in a particular 
situation. The ways in which the abortion law were fought by groups of 
individuals shows the situatedness of any struggle. The tactics were differ¬ 
ent in Montreal than they were in Winnipeg or Toronto. The locale varied 
enormously as well; the requirements for abortion were very different in 
differing parts of Canada although abortion fell under federal jurisdiction. 
This rendering of women’s bodies into location will again be contested 
by local groups in situated ways. 


At the end of these scattered travels, it would be tempting to offer a 
map of the local, something that would point out “you are here,” with 
arrows to indicate the path to be followed. But if anything is clear after 
these theoretical meanderings, it is that the local exists nowhere in a pure 
state. The local is only a fragmented set of possibilities that can be 
articulated into a momentary politics of time and place. Against the 
postmodernist gesture of local, feminism can render the local into some¬ 
thing workable, somewhere to be worked upon. This is to take the local 
not as the end point, but as the start. This is not to idealize the local as 
the real, but to look at the ways in which injustices are naturalized in the 
name of the immediate. In conceiving of the local as a nodal point, we 
can begin to deconstruct its movements and its meanings. Thus, in thinking 
of how locale is inscribed on our bodies, in our homes, and on the streets, 
we can begin to loosen its ideological affects. In uncoupling the event of 
patriarchy from its site, we move beyond the silent agony of “the problem 
that has no name.” In looking at how location disqualifies certain experi¬ 
ences, we begin to realize that the knowledge of locale is important and 
powerful. In rearticulating the ground that is locally built around us, we 
give feminist answers that show up the ideological conditions of certain 
postmodernist questions. 

Notes 

1. My use here of the term subaltern should be taken in its general sense of 
“subordinate.” It obviously owes much to Spivak’s (1986, 1988) usage 



188 / Elspeth Probyn 


of subaltern as “excluded” and “not legitimized.” Given the Lacanian 
psychoanalytic overtones of the Other, I prefer, where possible, to refer to 
those excluded from the multiple levels of empowerment as subaltern. In 
addition, the etymology of this word reveals the historical articulations of 
its militaristic and colonial heritage and thus is a reminder of numerous 
nuances of oppression. 

2. For discussion of this tendency, see Communication (1988), and Marxism 
and the Interpretation of Culture ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg 
(1988). Elspeth Probyn (1987) offers a brief critique of the confusion of 
politics within postmodernism. 

3. For one critique of some of the ways in which postmodernists have appro¬ 
priated feminist work, see Elspeth Probyn (1987). 

4. I emphasize that 1 am taking from Foucault’s early work. Spivak formulates 
an interesting critique of Foucault’s inscription of the “Sovereign Subject” 
(Spivak, 1988). 

References 

Barrett, Michele and Mary McIntosh. 1982. The Anti-social Family. London: 
Verso. 

Brown, JudithC. 1986. Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance 
Italy. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Baudrillard, Jean. 1983. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities . . . Or the End 
of the Social. Translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and John Johnston. New 
York: Semiotext(e). 

-1986. Amerique. Paris: Bernard Grasset. 

-1988. “Between Marxism and Postmodernism.” Communication 10. 

Coward, Rosalind. 1985. Female Desires: How They Are Sought, Bought and 
Packaged. New York: Grove Press. 

Friedan, Betty. 1963. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Dell Books. 

Foucault, Michel. 1973. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human 
Sciences. New York: Vintage Books. 

Grossberg, Lawrence. 1987. “The In-Difference of Television.” Screen 28 (2): 
28-48. 

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1986. Le postmoderne explique aux enfants. Paris: Edi¬ 
tions Galilee. 

McRobbie, Angela. 1984. “Dance and Social Fantasy.” Gender and Generation. 
Edited by A. McRobbie and M. Nava. London: Macmillan. 

-.1985. “Strategies of Vigilance: An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorti 

Spivak.” Block 10: 5-9. 

Morris, Meaghan. 1988. “At Henry Parkes Motel,” Cultural Studies 2(1): 1- 
16. 



Travels in the Postmodern / 189 


Nelson, Cary and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. 1988. Marxism and the Interpreta¬ 
tion of Culture. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. 

Radway, Janice. “Reception Study, Ethnography and the Problems of Dispersed 
Audiences and Nomadic Subjects,” Paper presented at the International 
Communications Association Annual Conference, May 1987, Montreal 
Quebec. 

Rich, Adrienne. 1986. Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985. 
New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 

Probyn, Elspeth. 1987. “Bodies and Anti-bodies: Feminism in the Postmodern,” 
Cultural Studies 1 (3): 349-360. 

-. 1988. “Memories and Past Politics of Postmodernism,” Communication 

10: 305-310. 

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Edited by Cary 
Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. 
Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. 

-.1986. “Imperialism and Sexual Difference,” Oxford Literary Review. 

8:225-240. 

Walkerdine, Valerie. 1986. “Video Replay: Families, Films and Fantasy.” For¬ 
mations of Fantasy. Edited by Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora 
Kaplan. London: Methuen. 



9 


A Manifesto for Cyborgs: 
Science, Technology, and 
Socialist Feminism in the 1980s 

Donna Haraway 


An Ironic Dream of a Common Language 
for Women in the Integrated Circuit 


This chapter is an effort to build an ironic political myth faithful to 
feminism, socialism, and materialism. Perhaps more faithful as blasphemy 
is faithful, than as reverent worship and identification. Blasphemy has 
always seemed to require taking things very seriously. I know no better 
stance to adopt from within the secular-religious, evangelical traditions of 
U.S. politics, including the politics of socialist feminism. Blasphemy 
protects one from the Moral Majority within, while still insisting on the 
need for community. Blasphemy is not apostasy. Irony is about contradic¬ 
tions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the 
tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are 
necessary and true. Irony is about humor and serious play. It is also a 
rhetorical strategy and a political method, one I would like to see more 


This article was first published in Socialist Review, No. 80, 1985. The essay originated 
as a response to a call for political thinking about the 1980s from socialist-feminist points 
of view, in hopes of deepening our political and cultural debates in order to renew 
commitments to fundamental social change in the face of the Reagan years. The cyborg 
manifesto tried to find a feminist place for connected thinking and acting in profoundly 
contradictory worlds. Since its publication, this bit of cyborgian writing has had a surprising 
half life. It has proved impossible to rewrite the cyborg. Cyborg’s daughter will have to 
find its own matrix in another essay, starting from the proposition that the immune system 
is the biotechnical body's chief system of differences in late capitalism, where feminists 
might find provocative extraterrestrial maps of the networks of embodied power marked 
by race, sex, and class. This chapter is substantially the same as the 1985 version, with 
minor revisions and correction of notes. 


190 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 191 


honored within socialist feminism. At the center of my ironic faith, my 
blasphemy, is the image of the cyborg. 

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, 
a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality 
is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world¬ 
changing fiction. The international women’s movements have constructed 
“women’s experience,” as well as uncovered or discovered this crucial 
collective object. This experience is a fiction and fact of the most crucial, 
political kind. Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, 
the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility. The 
cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts 
as women’s experience in the late twentieth century. This is a struggle 
over life and death, but the boundary between science fiction and social 
reality is an optical illusion. 

Contemporary science fiction is full of cyborgs—creatures simultane¬ 
ously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and 
crafted. Modern medicine is also full of cyborgs, of couplings between 
organism and machine, each conceived as coded devices, in an intimacy 
and with a power that was not generated in the history of sexuality. 
Cyborg “sex” restores some of the lovely replicative baroque of ferns 
and invertebrates (such nice organic prophylactics against heterosexism). 
Cyborg replication is uncoupled from organic reproduction. Modern pro¬ 
duction seems like a dream of cyborg colonization of work, a dream that 
makes the nightmare of Taylorism seem idyllic. Modem war is a cyborg 
orgy, coded by C’l, command-control-communication-intelligence, an 
$84 billion item in 1984’s U.S. defense budget. I am making an argument 
for the cyborg as a fiction mapping our social and bodily reality and as an 
imaginative resource suggesting some very fruitful couplings. Foucault’s 
biopolitics is a flaccid premonition of cyborg politics, a very open field. 

By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all 
chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in 
short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. 
The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, 
the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transforma¬ 
tion. In the traditions of Western science and politics—the tradition of 
racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition 
of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; 
the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other— 
the relation between organism and machine has been a border war. The 
stakes in the border war have been the territories of production, reproduc¬ 
tion, and imagination. This chapter is an argument for pleasure in the 
confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction. It is 
also an effort to contribute to socialist-feminist culture and theory in a 



192 / Donna Haraway 


postmodernist, nonnaturalist mode and in the utopian tradition of imagin¬ 
ing a world without gender, which is perhaps a world without genesis, 
but maybe also a world without end. The cyborg incarnation is outside 
salvation history. Nor does it mark time on an Oedipal calendar, attempting 
to heal the terrible cleavages of gender in oral symbiotic utopia or post- 
Oedipal apocalypse. As Zoe Sofoulis argues in her unpublished manuscript 
on Lacan, Klein, and nuclear culture, Lacklein, the most terrible and 
perhaps the most promising monsters in cyborg worlds are embodied in 
non-Oedipal narratives with a different logic of repression, which we need 
to understand for our survival. 

The cyborg is a creature in a postgender world; it has no truck with 
bisexuality, pre-Oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labor, or other seductions 
to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the 
parts into a higher unity. In a sense, the cyborg has no origin story in the 
Western sense; a “final” irony since the cyborg is also the awful apocalyptic 
telos of the West’s escalating dominations of abstract individuation, an 
ultimate self untied at last from all dependency, a man in space. An origin 
story in the Western humanist sense depends on the myth of original unity, 
fullness, bliss, and terror, represented by the phallic mother from whom 
all humans must separate, the task of individual development and of 
history, the twin potent myths inscribed most powerfully for us in psycho¬ 
analysis and Marxism. Hilary Klein has argued that both Marxism and 
psychoanalysis, in their concepts of labor and of individuation and gender 
formation, depend on the plot of original unity out of which difference 
must be produced and enlisted in a drama of escalating domination of 
woman/nature. The cyborg skips the step of original unity, of identification 
with nature in the Western sense. This is its illegitimate promise that might 
lead to subversion of its teleology as Star Wars. 

The cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and 
perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence. 
No longer structured by the polarity of public and private, the cyborg 
defines a technological polis based partly on a revolution of social relations 
in the oikos, the household. Nature and culture are reworked; the one can 
no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other. 
The relationships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polar¬ 
ity and hierarchical domination, are at issue in the cyborg world. Unlike 
the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster, the cyborg does not expect its father 
to save it through a restoration of the garden, that is, through the fabrication 
of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city 
and cosmos. The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of 
the organic family, this time without the Oedipal project. The cyborg 
would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot 
dream of returning to dust. Perhaps that is why I want to see if cyborgs 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 193 


can subvert the apocalypse of returning to nuclear dust in the manic 
compulsion to name the Enemy. Cyborgs are not reverent; they do not 
remember the cosmos. They are wary of holism, but needy for connec¬ 
tion—they seem to have a natural feel for united front politics, but without 
the vanguard party. The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they 
are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not 
to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly 
unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential. 

I will return to the science fiction of cyborgs at the end of the chapter, 
but now I want to signal three crucial boundary breakdowns that make the 
following political fictional (political scientific) analysis possible. By the 
late twentieth century in United States, scientific culture, the boundary 
between human and animal, is thoroughly breached. The last beachheads 
of uniqueness have been polluted, if not turned into amusement parks— 
language, tool use, social behavior, mental events. Nothing really con¬ 
vincingly settles the separation of human and animal. Many people no 
longer feel the need of such a separation; indeed, many branches of 
feminist culture affirm the pleasure of connection with human and other 
living creatures. Movements for animal rights are not irrational denials of 
human uniqueness; they are clear-sighted recognition of connection across 
the discredited breach of nature and culture. Biology and evolutionary 
theory over the last two centuries have simultaneously produced modern 
organisms as objects of knowledge and reduced the line between humans 
and animals to a faint trace re-etched in ideological struggle or professional 
disputes between life and social sciences. Within this framework, teaching 
modem Christian creationism should be fought as a form of child abuse. 

Biological-determinist ideology is only one position opened up in scien¬ 
tific culture for arguing the meanings of human animality. There is much 
room for radical political people to contest for the meanings of the breached 
boundary. 1 The cyborg appears in myth precisely where the boundary 
between human and animal is transgressed. Far from signaling a walling 
off of people from other living things, cyborgs signal disturbingly and 
pleasurably tight coupling. Bestiality has a new status in this cycle of 
marriage exchange. 

The second leaky distinction is between animal-human (organism) and 
machine. Pre-cybemetic machines could be haunted; there was always the 
specter of the ghost in the machine. This dualism structured the dialogue 
between materialism and idealism that was settled by a dialectical progeny 
called spirit or history, according to taste. But basically machines were 
not self-moving, self-designing, autonomous. They could not achieve 
man’s dream, only mock it. They were not man, an author of himself, but 
only a caricature of that masculinist reproductive dream. To think they 
were otherwise was paranoid. Now we are not so sure. Late twentieth- 



194 / Donna Haraway 


century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference be¬ 
tween natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally 
designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms 
and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves 
frighteningly inert. 

Technological determinism is only one ideological space opened up 
by the reconceptions of machine and organism as coded texts through 
which we engage in the play of writing and reading the world. 2 
“Textualization” of everything in poststructuralist, postmodernist theory 
has been damned by Marxists and socialist feminists for its utopian 
disregard for lived relations of domination that ground the “play” of 
arbitrary reading. 3 * It is certainly true that postmodernist strategies, 
like my cyborg myth, subvert myriad organic wholes (e.g., the poem, 
the primitive culture, the biological organism). In short, the certainty 
of what counts as nature—a source of insight and a promise of 
innocence—is undermined, probably fatally. The transcendent authoriza¬ 
tion of interpretation is lost and with it the ontology grounding Western 
epistemology. But the alternative is not cynicism or faithlessness, that 
is, some version of abstract existence, like the accounts of technological 
determinism destroying “man” by the “machine” or “meaningful political 
action” by the “text.” Who cyborgs will be is a radical question; the 


*A provocative, comprehensive argument about the politics and theories of postmodern¬ 
ism is made by Fredric Jameson, who argues that postmodernism is not an option, a style 
among others, but a cultural dominant requiring radical reinvention of left politics from 
within; there is no longer any place from without that gives meaning to the comforting 
fiction of critical distance. Jameson also makes clear why one cannot be for or against 
postmodernism, an essentially moralist move. My position is that feminists (and others) 
need continuous cultural reinvention, postmodernist critique, and historical materialism; 
only a cyborg would have a chance. The old dominations of white capitalist patriarchy 
seem nostalgically innocent now: They normalized heterogeneity, e.g., into man and 
woman, white and black. “Advanced capitalism" and postmodernism release heterogeneity 
without a norm, and we are flattened, without subjectivity, which requires depth, even 
unfriendly and drowning depths. It is time to write The Death of the Clinic. The clinic’s 
methods required bodies and works; we have texts and surfaces. Our dominations don't 
work by medicalization and normalization anymore; they work by networking, communi¬ 
cations redesign, stress management. Normalization gives way to automation, utter redun¬ 
dancy. Michel Foucault’s Birth of the Clinic, History of Sexuality, and Discipline and 
Punish name a form of power at its moment of implosion. The discourse of biopolitics 
gives way to technobabble, the language of the spliced substantive; no noun is left whole 
by the multinationals. These are their names, listed from one issue of Science: Tech- 
Knowledge, Gencntech, Allergen, Hybritech, Compupro, Gcnen-cor, Syntex, Allelix, 
Agrigenctics Corp., Syntro, Codon. Repligen; Micro-Angelo from Scion Corp.. Percom 
Data, Inter Systems, Cyborg Corp., Statcom Corp., Intertec. If we are imprisoned by 
language, then escape from that prison-house requires language poets, a kind of cultural 
restriction enzyme to cut the code; cyborg heteroglossia is one form of radical culture 
politics. 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 195 


answers are a matter of survival. Both chimpanzees and artifacts have 
politics, so why shouldn’t we? 4 

The third distinction is a subset of the second: The boundary between 
physical and nonphysical is very imprecise for us. Pop physics books on 
the consequences of quantum theory and the indeterminacy principle are 
a kind of popular scientific equivalent to the Harlequin romances as a 
marker of radical change in American white heterosexuality: They get it 
wrong, but they are on the right subject. Modem machines are quintessen- 
tially microelectronic devices: They are everywhere and they are invisible. 
Modem machinery is an irreverent upstart god, mocking the Father’s 
ubiquity and spirituality. The silicon chip is a surface for writing; it is 
etched in molecular scales disturbed only by atomic noise, the ultimate 
interference for nuclear scores. Writing, power, and technology are old 
partners in Western stories of the origin of civilization, but miniaturization 
has changed our experience of mechanism. Miniaturization has turned out 
to be about power; small is not so much beautiful as preeminently danger¬ 
ous, as in Cruise missiles. Contrast the TV sets of the 1950s or the news 
cameras of the 1970s with the TV wristbands or hand-sized video cameras 
now advertised. Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light 
and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a 
section of a spectrum. These machines are eminently portable, mobile— 
a matter of immense human pain in Detroit and Singapore. People are 
nowhere near so fluid, being both material and opaque. Cyborgs are ether, 
quintessence. 

The ubiquity and invisibility of cyborgs is precisely why these Sunshine 
Belt machines are so deadly. They are as hard to see politically as materi¬ 
ally. They are about consciousness—or its simulation. 5 They are floating 
signifiers moving in pickup trucks across Europe, blocked more effectively 
by the witch-weavings of the displaced and so unnatural Greenham 
women, who read the cyborg webs of power very well, than by the militant 
labor of older masculinist politics, whose natural constituency needs de¬ 
fense jobs. Ultimately, the “hardest” science is about the realm of greatest 
boundary confusion, the realm of pure number, pure spirit, C 3 I, cryptogra¬ 
phy, and the preservation of potent secrets. The new machines are so 
clean and light. Their engineers are sun worshipers mediating a new 
scientific revolution associated with the night dream of post industrial 
society. The diseases evoked by these clean machines are “no more” than 
the minuscule coding changes of an antigen in the immune system, “no 
more” than the experience of stress. The “nimble” fingers of “Oriental” 
women, the old fascination of little Anglo-Saxon Victorian girls with 
dollhouses, and women’s enforced attention to the small take on quite 
new dimensions in this world. There might be a cyborg Alice taking 
account of these new dimensions. Ironically, it might be the unnatural 



196 / Donna Haraway 


cyborg women making chips in Asia and spiral dancing in Santa Rita jail 
after an antinuclear action whose constructed unities will guide effective 
oppositional strategies. 

So my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, 
and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as 
one part of needed political work. One of my premises is that most 
American socialists and feminists see deepened dualisms of mind and 
body, animal and machine, idealism and materialism in the social prac¬ 
tices, symbolic formulations, and physical artifacts associated with high 
technology and scientific culture. From One-Dimensional Man to The 
Death of Nature , 6 the analytic resources developed by progressives have 
insisted on the necessary domination of technics and recalled us to an 
imagined organic body to integrate our resistance. Another of my premises 
is that the need for unity of people trying to resist worldwide intensification 
of domination has never been more acute. But a slightly perverse shift of 
perspective might better enable us to contest for meanings, as well as for 
other forms of power and pleasure in technologically mediated societies. 

From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of 
a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a 
Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defense, about the final 
appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war. 7 From 
another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily 
realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals 
and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradic¬ 
tory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at 
once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable 
from the other vantage point. Single vision produces worse illusions than 
double vision or many-headed monsters. Cyborg unities are monstrous 
and illegitimate; in our present political circumstances, we could hardly 
hope for more potent myths for resistance and recoupling. I like to imagine 
the Livermore Action Group, LAG, as a kind of cyborg society, dedicated 
to realistically converting the laboratories that most fiercely embody and 
spew out the tools of technological apocalypse, and committed to building 
a political form that actually manages to hold together witches, engineers, 
elders, perverts, Christians, mothers, and Leninists long enough to disarm 
the state. Fission Impossible is the name of the affinity group in my town. 
(Affinity: related not by blood but by choice, the appeal of one chemical 
nuclear group for another, avidity, f 

Fractured Identities 

It has become difficult to name one’s feminism by a single adjective— 
or even to insist in every circumstance upon the noun. Consciousness of 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 197 


exclusion through naming is acute. Identities seem contradictory, partial, 
and strategic. With the hard-won recognition of their social and historical 
constitution, gender, race, and class cannot provide the basis for belief in 
“essential” unity. There is nothing about being “female” that naturally binds 
women. There is not even such a state as “being” female, itself a highly 
complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and 
other social practices. Gender, race, or class consciousness is an achieve¬ 
ment forced on us by the terrible historical experience of the contradictory 
social realities of patriarchy, colonialism, racism and capitalism. Who 
counts as “us” in my own rhetoric? Which identities are available to ground 
such a potent political myth called “us,” and what could motivate enlistment 
in this collectivity? Painful fragmentation among feminists (not to mention 
among women) along every possible fault line has made the concept of 
woman elusive, an excuse for the matrix of women’s dominations of each 
other. For me—and for many who share a similar historical location in 
white, professional, middle-class, female, radical. North American, mid¬ 
adult bodies—the sources of a crisis in political identity are legion. The 
recent history for much of the U.S. Left and the U.S. feminism has been a 
response to this kind of crisis by endless splitting and searches for a new 
essential unity. But there has also been a growing recognition of another 
response through coalition—affinity, not identity. 9 

Chela Sandoval, from a consideration of specific historical moments in 
the formation of the new political voice called women of color, has theorized 
a hopeful model of political identity called “oppositional consciousness,” 
bom of the skills for reading webs of power by those refused stable member¬ 
ship in the social categories of race, sex, or class. 10 “Women of color,” a 
name contested at its origins by those whom it would incorporate, as well as 
a historical consciousness marking systematic breakdown of all the signs of 
Man in Western traditions, constructs a king of postmodernist identity out 
of otherness, difference, and specificity. This postmodernist identity is fully 
political, whatever might be said about other possible postmodemisms. 
Sandoval’s oppositional consciousness is about contradictory locations and 
heterochronic calendars, not about relativisms and pluralisms. 

Sandoval emphasizes the lack of any essential criterion for identifying 
who is a woman of color. She notes that the definition of the group has 
been by conscious appropriation of negation. For example, a chicana or 
a U.S. black woman has not been able to speak as a woman or as a black 
person or as a chicano. Thus, she was at the bottom of a cascade of 
negative identities, left out of even the “privileged” oppressed authorial 
categories called “women and blacks,” who claimed to make the important 
revolutions. The category “woman” negated all nonwhite women; “black” 
negated all nonblack people, as well as all black women. But there was 
also no “she,” no singularity, but a sea of differences among U.S. women 



198 / Donna Haraway 


who have affirmed their historical identity as U.S. women of color. This 
identity marks out a self-consciously constructed space that cannot affirm 
the capacity to act on the basis of natural identification, but only on the 
basis of conscious coalition, of affinity, of political kinship." Unlike the 
“woman” of some streams of the white women’s movement in the United 
States, there is no naturalization of the matrix, or at least this is what 
Sandoval argues is uniquely available through the power of oppositional 
consciousness. 

Sandoval’s argument has to be seen as one potent formulation for 
feminists out of the worldwide development of anti-colonialist discourse, 
that is, discourse dissolving the West and its highest product—the one 
who is not animal, barbarian, or woman: that is, man, the author of a 
cosmos called history. As Orientalism is deconstructed politically and 
semiotically, the identities of the Occident destabilize, including those of 
its feminists. 13 Sandoval argues that “women of color” have a chance to 
build an effective unity that does not replicate the imperializing, totalizing 
revolutionary subjects of previous Marxisms and feminisms which had 
not faced the consequences of the disorderly polyphony emerging from 
decolonization. 

Katie King has emphasized the limits of identification and the political/ 
poetic mechanics of identification built into reading “the poem,” that 
generative core of cultural feminism. King criticizes the persistent ten¬ 
dency among contemporary feminists from different “moments” or “con¬ 
versations” in feminist practice to taxonomize the women’s movement to 
make one’s own political tendencies appear to be the telos of the whole. 
These taxonomies tend to remake feminist history to appear to be an 
ideological struggle among coherent types persisting over time, especially 
those typical units called radical, liberal, and socialist feminism. Literally, 
all other feminisms are either incorporated or marginalized, usually by 
building an explicit ontology and epistemology. 13 Taxonomies of femi¬ 
nism produce epistemologies to police deviation from official women’s 
experience. Of course, “women’s culture,” like women of color, is con¬ 
sciously created by mechanisms inducing affinity. The rituals of poetry, 
music, and certain forms of academic practice have been preeminent. The 
politics of race and culture in the U.S. women’s movements are intimately 
interwoven. The common achievement of King and Sandoval is learning 
how to craft a poetic/political unity without relying on a logic of appropria¬ 
tion, incorporation, and taxonomic identification. 

The theoretical and practical struggle against unity-through-domination 
or unity-through-incorporation ironically not only undermines the justifi¬ 
cations for patriarchy, colonialism, humanism, positivism, essentialism, 
scientism, and other unlamented -isms, but all claims for an organic or 
natural standpoint. 1 think that radical and socialist/Marxist feminisms 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 199 


have also undermined their/our own epistemological strategies and that 
this is a crucially valuable step in imagining possible unities. It remains 
to be seen whether all epistemologies as Western political people have 
known them fail us in the task to build effective affinities. 

It is important to note that the effort to construct revolutionary stand¬ 
points, epistemologies as achievements of people committed to changing 
the world, has been part of the process showing the limits of identification. 
The acid tools of postmodernist theory and the constructive tools of 
ontological discourse about revolutionary subjects might be seen as ironic 
allies in dissolving Western selves in the interests of survival. We are 
excruciatingly conscious of what it means to have a historically constituted 
body. But with the loss of innocence in our origin, there is no expulsion 
from the Garden either. Our politics lose the indulgence of guilt with the 
naivete of innocence. But what would another political myth for socialist 
feminism look like? What kind of politics could embrace partial, contradic¬ 
tory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves 
and still be faithful, effective—and, ironically, socialist feminist? 

I do not know of any other time in history when there was greater need 
for political unity to confront effectively the dominations of race, gender, 
sexuality, and class. I also do not know of any other time when the kind 
of unity we might help build could have been possible. None of “us” have 
any longer the symbolic or material capability of dictating the shape of 
reality to any of “them.” Or at least “we” cannot claim innocence from 
practicing such dominations. White women, including Euroamerican so¬ 
cialist feminists, discovered (i.e., were forced kicking and screaming to 
notice) the noninnocence of the category “woman.” That consciousness 
changes the configuration of all previous categories; it denatures them as 
heat denatures a fragile protein. Cyborg feminists have to argue that “we” 
do not want any more natural matrix of unity and that no construction is 
whole. Innocence, and the corollary insistence on victimhood as the 
only ground for insight, has done enough damage. But the constructed 
revolutionary subject must give late twentieth-century people pause as 
well. In the fraying of identities and in the reflexive strategies forconstruct- 
ing them, the possibility opens up for weaving something other than a 
shroud for the day after the apocalypse that so prophetically ends salvation 
history. 

But Marxist/socialist feminisms and radical feminisms have simultane¬ 
ously naturalized and denatured the category “woman” and consciousness 
of the social lives of “women.” Perhaps a schematic caricature can high¬ 
light both kinds of moves. Marxian socialism is rooted in an analysis of 
wage labor which reveals class structure. The consequence of the wage 
relationship is systematic alienation, as the worker is dissociated from his 
[sic] product. Abstraction and illusion rule in knowledge; domination rules 



200 / Donna Haraway 


in practice. Labor is the preeminently privileged category enabling the 
Marxist to overcome illusion and find that point of view which is necessary 
for changing the world. Labor is the humanizing activity that makes man; 
labor is an ontological category permitting the knowledge of a subject, 
and so the knowledge of subjugation and alienation. 

In faithful filiation, socialist feminism advanced by allying itself with 
the basic analytic strategies of this Marxism. The main achievement of 
both Marxist feminists and socialist feminists was to expand the category 
of labor to accommodate what (some) women did, even when the wage 
relation was subordinated to a more comprehensive view of labor under 
capitalist patriarchy. In particular, women’s labor in the household and 
women’s activity as mothers generally, that is, reproduction in the socialist 
feminist sense, entered theory on the authority of analogy to the Marxian 
concept of labor. The unity of women here rests on an epistemology based 
on the ontological structure of “labor.” Marxist/socialist feminism does 
not “naturalize” unity; it is a possible achievement based on a possible 
standpoint rooted in social relations. The essentializing move is in the 
ontological structure of labor or of its analogue, women’s activity. I4 * The 
inheritance of Marxian humanism, with its preeminently Western self, is 
the difficulty for me. The contribution from these formulations has been 
the emphasis on the daily responsibility of real women to build unities, 
rather than to naturalize them. 

Catherine MacKinnon’s version of radical feminism is itself a caricature 
of the appropriating, incorporating, totalizing tendencies of Western theo¬ 
ries of identity grounding action.' 5 It is factually and politically wrong to 
assimilate all of the diverse “moments” or “conversations” in recent wom¬ 
en’s politics named radical feminism to MacKinnon’s version. But the 
teleological logic of her theory shows how an epistemology and ontol¬ 
ogy—including their negations—erase or police difference. Only one of 
the effects of MacKinnon’s theory is the rewriting of the history of 
the polymorphous field called radical feminism. The major effect is the 
production, of a theory of experience, of women’s identity, that is a kind 
of apocalypse for all revolutionary standpoints. That is, the totalization 
built into this tale of radical feminism achieves its end—the unity of 
women—by enforcing the experience of and testimony to radical nonbe¬ 
ing. As for the Marxist/socialist feminist, consciousness is an achieve- 


*The central role of object-relations versions of psychoanalysis and related strong 
universalizing moves in discussing reproduction, caring work, and mothering in many 
approaches to epistemology underline their authors’ resistance to what 1 am calling 
postmodernism. For me, both the universalizing moves and these versions of psychoanaly¬ 
sis make analysis of “women’s place in the integrated circuit” difficult and lead to 
systematic difficulties in accounting for or even seeing major aspects of the construction 
of gender and gendered social life. 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 201 


ment, not a natural fact. MacKinnon’s theory eliminates some of the 
difficulties built into humanist revolutionary subjects, but at the cost of 
radical reductionism. 

MacKinnon argues that feminism necessarily adopted a different analyt¬ 
ical strategy from Marxism, looking first not at the structure of class, 
but at the structure of sex/gender and its generative relationship, men’s 
constitution and appropriation of women sexually. Ironically, MacKin¬ 
non’s “ontology” constructs a nonsubject, a nonbeing. Another’s desire, 
not the self’s labor, is the origin of “woman.” She therefore develops 
a theory of consciousness that enforces what can count as “women’s” 
experience—anything that names sexual violation, indeed, sex itself as 
far as “women” can be concerned. Feminist practice is the construction 
of this form of consciousness; that is, the self-knowledge of a self-who- 
is-not. 

Perversely, sexual appropriation in this feminism still has the epistemo¬ 
logical status of labor, that is, the point from which analysis able to 
contribute to changing the world must flow. But sexual objectification, 
not alienation, is the consequence of the structure of sex/gender. In the 
realm of knowledge, the result of sexual objectification is illusion and 
abstraction. However, a woman is not simply alienated from her product, 
but in a deep sense she does not exist as a subject, or even potential 
subject, since she owes her existence as a woman to sexual appropriation. 
To be constituted by another’s desire is not the same thing as to be 
alienated in the violent separation of the laborer from his product. 

MacKinnon’s radical theory of experience is totalizing in the extreme; 
it does not so much marginalize as obliterate the authority of any other 
women’s political speech and action. It is a totalization producing what 
Western patriarchy itself never succeeded in doing—feminists’ conscious¬ 
ness of the nonexistence of women, except as products of men’s desire. 
I think MacKinnon correctly argues that no Marxian version of identity 
can firmly ground women’s unity. But in solving the problem of the 
contradictions of any Western revolutionary subject for feminist purposes, 
she develops an even more authoritarian doctrine of experience. If my 
complaint about socialist/Marxian standpoints is their unintended erasure 
of polyvocal, unassimilable, radical difference made visible in anti-colo¬ 
nial discourse and practice, MacKinnon’s intentional erasure of all differ¬ 
ence through the device of the “essential” nonexistence of women is not 
reassuring. 

In my taxonomy, which like any other taxonomy is a reinscription of 
history, radical feminism can accommodate all the activities of women 
named by socialist feminists as forms of labor only if the activity can 
somehow be sexualized. Reproduction had different tones of meanings 
for the two tendencies, one rooted in labor, one in sex, both calling the 



202 / Donna Haraway 


consequences of domination and ignorance of social and personal reality 
“false consciousness.” 

Beyond either the difficulties or the contributions in the argument of 
any one author, neither Marxist nor radical-feminist points of view have 
tended to embrace the status of a partial explanation; both were regularly 
constituted as totalities. Western explanation has demanded as much; how 
else could the Western author incorporate its others? Each tried to annex 
other forms of domination by expanding its basic categories through 
analogy, simple listing, or addition. Embarrassed silence about race 
among white radical and socialist feminists was one major, devastating 
political consequence. History and polyvocality disappear into political 
taxonomies that try to establish genealogies. There was no structural room 
for race (or for much else) in theory claiming to reveal the construction 
of the category “woman” and social group “women” as a unified or 
totalizable whole. The structure of my caricature looks like this: 


Socialist Feminism— 
structure of class//wage labor//alienation 

labor, by analogy reproduction, by extension sex, by addition race 
Radical Feminism— 

structure of gender//sexual appropriation//objectification 

sex, by analogy labor, by extension reproduction, by addition race 


In another context, the French theorist Julia Kristeva claimed women 
appeared as a historical group after World War II, along with groups like 
youth. Her dates are doubtful, but we are now accustomed to remembering 
that as objects of knowledge and as historical actors, “race” did not always 
exist, “class” has a historical genesis, and “homosexuals” are quite junior. 
It is no accident that the symbolic system of the family of man—and so 
the essence of woman—breaks up at the same moment that networks of 
connection among people on the planet are unprecedentedly multiple, 
pregnant, and complex. “Advanced capitalism” is inadequate to convey 
the structure of this historical moment. In the Western sense, the end of 
man is at stake. It is no accident that woman disintegrates into women in 
our time. Perhaps socialist feminists were not substantially guilty of 
producing essentialist theory that suppressed women’s particularity and 
contradictory interests. I think we have been, at least through unreflective 
participation in the logics, languages, and practices of white humanism 
and through searching for a single ground of domination to secure our 
revolutionary voice. Now we have less excuse. But in the consciousness 
of our failures, we risk lapsing into boundless difference and giving up 
on the confusing task of making partial, real connection. Some differences 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 203 


are playful; some are poles of world historical systems of domination. 
Epistemology is about knowing the difference. 

The Informatics of Domination 

In this attempt at an epistemological and political position, I would like 
to sketch a picture of possible unity, a picture indebted to socialist and 
feminist principles of design. The frame for my sketch is set by the extent 
and importance of rearrangements in worldwide social relations tied to 
science and technology. I argue for a politics rooted in claims about 
fundamental changes in the nature of class, race, and gender in an emerg¬ 
ing system of world order analogous in its novelty and scope to that created 
by industrial capitalism; we are living through a movement from an 
organic, industrial society to a polymorphous, information system—from 
all work to all play, a deadly game. Simultaneously material and ideologi¬ 
cal, the dichotomies may be expressed in the following chart of transitions 
from the comfortable old hierarchical dominations to the scary new net¬ 
works I have called the informatics of domination: 


Simulation 


Representation 
Bourgeois novel, realism 
Organism 
Depth, integrity 
Heat 

Biology as clinical practice 

Physiology 

Small group 

Perfection 

Eugenics 

Decadence, Magic Mountain 
Hygiene 

Microbiology, tuberculosis 
Organic division of labor 
Functional specialization 
Reproduction 

Organic sex role specialization 

Biological determinism 

Community ecology 

Racial chain of being 

Scientific management in home/factory 

Family/market/factory 

Family wage 

Public/private 

Nature/culture 

Cooperation 


Science fiction, postmodernism 
Biotic component 
Surface, boundary 
Noise 

Biology as inscription 
Communications engineering 
Subsystem 
Optimization 
Population Control 
Obsolescence, Future Shock 
Stress management 
Immunology, AIDS 
Ergonomics/cybcrnetics of labor 
Modular construction 
Replication 

Optimal genetic strategies 
Evolutionary inertia, constraints 
Ecosystem 

Neo-imperialism, United Nations humanism 

Global factory/electronic cottage 

Women in the integrated circuit 

Comparable worth 

Cyborg citizenship 

Fields of difference 

Communications enhancement 



204 / Donna Haraway 


Freud 

Sex 

Labor 

Mind 

World War II 

White capitalist patriarchy 


Lacan 

Genetic engineering 
Robotics 

Artificial intelligence 
Star Wars 

Informatics of domination 


This list suggests several interesting things. 16 First, the objects on the 
right-hand side cannot be coded as “natural,” a realization that subverts 
naturalistic coding for the left-hand side as well. We cannot go back 
ideologically or materially. It’s not just that “god” is dead; so is the 
“goddess.” Or both are revivified in the worlds charged with microelec¬ 
tronic and biotechnological politics. In relation to objects like biotic 
components, one must think not in terms of essential properties, but in 
terms of design, boundary constraints, rates of flows, systems logics, costs 
of lowering constraints. Sexual reproduction is one kind of reproductive 
strategy among many, with costs and benefits as a function of the system 
environment. Ideologies of sexual reproduction can no longer reasonably 
call on notions of sex and sex role as organic aspects in natural objects 
like organisms and families. Such reasoning will be unmasked as irratio¬ 
nal, and ironically corporate executives reading Playboy and anti-pom 
radical feminists will make strange bedfellows in jointly unmasking the 
irrationalism. 

Likewise for race, racist and anti-racist ideologies about human diver¬ 
sity have to be formulated in terms of frequencies of parameters. It is 
“irrational” to invoke concepts like primitive and civilized. For liberals 
and radicals, the search for integrated social systems gives way to a new 
practice called “experimental ethnography” in which an organic object 
dissipates in attention to the play of writing. At the level of ideology, we 
see translations of racism and colonialism into languages of development 
and underdevelopment, rates and constraints of modernization. Any ob¬ 
jects or persons can be “reasonably” thought of in terms of disassembly 
and reassembly; no “natural” architectures constrain system design. The 
financial districts in all the world’s cities, as well as the export-processing 
and free-trade zones, proclaim this elementary fact of “late capitalism.” 
The entire universe of objects that can be known scientifically must be 
formulated as problems in communications engineering (for the managers) 
or theories of the text (for those who would resist). Both are cyborg 
semiologies. 

One should expect control strategies to concentrate on boundary condi¬ 
tions and interfaces, on rates of flow across boundaries—and not on the 
integrity of natural objects. “Integrity” or “sincerity” of the Western self 
gives way to decision procedures and expert systems. For example, control 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 205 


strategies applied to women’s capacities to give birth to new human beings 
will be developed in the languages of population control and maximization 
of goal achievement for individual decisionmakers. Control strategies will 
be formulated in terms of rates, costs of constraints, degrees of freedom. 
Human beings, like any other component or subsystem, must be localized 
in a system architecture whose basic modes of operation are probabilistic, 
statistical. No objects, spaces, or bodies are sacred in themselves; any 
component can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the 
proper code, can be constructed for processing signals in a common 
language. Exchange in this world transcends the universal translation 
effected by capitalist markets that Marx analyzed so well. The privileged 
pathology affecting all kinds of components in this universe is stress— 
communications breakdown. 17 The cyborg is not subject to Foucault’s 
biopolitics; the cyborg simulates politics, a much more potent field of 
operations. Discursive constructions are no joke. 

This kind of analysis of scientific and cultural objects of knowledge 
which have appeared historically since World War II prepares us to notice 
some important inadequacies in feminist analysis which has proceeded as 
if the organic, hierarchical dualism ordering discourse in the West since 
Aristotle still ruled. They have been cannibalized, or as Zoe Sofia (So- 
foulis) might put it, they have been “techno-digested.” The dichotomies 
between mind and body, animal and human, organism and machine, 
public and private, nature and culture, men and women, primitive and 
civilized are all in question ideologically. The actual situation of women 
is their integration/exploitation into a world system of production/repro¬ 
duction and communication called the informatics of domination. The 
home, work place, market, public arena, the body itself—all can be 
dispersed and interfaced in nearly infinite, polymorphous ways, with large 
consequences for women and others—consequences that themselves are 
very different for different people and which make potent oppositional 
international movements difficult to imagine and essential for survival. 
One important route for reconstructing socialist-feminist politics is through 
theory and practice addressed to the social relations of science and technol¬ 
ogy, including crucially the systems of myth and meanings structuring 
our imaginations. The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, 
postmodern collective and personal self. This is the self feminists must 
code. 

Communications technologies and biotechnologies are the crucial tools 
recrafting our bodies. These tools embody and enforce new social relations 
for women worldwide. Technologies and scientific discourses can be 
partially understood as formalizations, that is, as frozen moments, of the 
fluid social interactions constituting them, but they should also be viewed 
as instruments for enforcing meanings. The boundary is permeable be- 



206 / Donna Haraway 


tween tool and myth, instrument and concept, historical systems of social 
relations and historical anatomies of possible bodies, including objects of 
knowledge. Indeed, myth and tool mutually constitute each other. 

Furthermore, communications sciences and modem biologies are con¬ 
structed by a common move—the translation of the world into a problem 
of coding, a search for a common language in which all resistance to 
instrumental control disappears and all heterogeneity can be submitted to 
disassembly, reassembly, investment, and exchange. 

In communications sciences, the translation of the world into a problem 
in coding can be illustrated by looking at cybernetic (feedback controlled) 
systems theories applied to telephone technology, computer design, weap¬ 
ons deployment, or data-base construction and maintenance. In each case, 
solution to the key questions rests on a theory of language and control; 
the key operation is determining the rates, directions, and probabilities of 
flow of a quantity called information. The world is subdivided by bound¬ 
aries differentially permeable to information. Information is just that 
kind of quantifiable element (unit, basis of unity) which allows universal 
translation and so unhindered instrumental power (called effective commu¬ 
nication). The biggest threat to such power is interruption of communica¬ 
tion. Any system breakdown is a function of stress. The fundamentals of 
this technology can be condensed into the metaphor C 3 I, command-con¬ 
trol-communication-intelligence, the military’s symbol for its operations 
theory. 

In modem biologies, the translation of the world into a problem in 
coding can be illustrated by molecular genetics, ecology, sociobiological 
evolutionary theory, and immunobiology. The organism has been trans¬ 
lated into problems of genetic coding and read-out. Biotechnology, a 
writing technology, informs research broadly. 18 In a sense, organisms 
have ceased to exist as objects of knowledge, giving way to biotic compo¬ 
nents, that is, special kinds of information-processing devices. The analo¬ 
gous moves in ecology could be examined by probing the history and 
utility of the concept of the ecosystem. Immunobiology and associated 
medical practices are rich exemplars of the privilege of coding and recogni¬ 
tion systems as objects of knowledge, as constructions of bodily reality 
for us. Biology here is a king of cryptography. Research is necessarily a 
kind of intelligence activity. Ironies abound. A stressed system goes 
awry; its communication processes break down; it fails to recognize the 
difference between self and other. Human babies with baboon hearts evoke 
national ethical perplexity—for animal-rights activists at least as much as 
for the guardians of human purity. In the United States gay men and 
intravenous drug users are the most “privileged” victims of an awful 
immune-system disease that marks (inscribes on the body) confusion of 
boundaries and moral pollution. 19 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 207 


But these excursions into communications sciences and biology have 
been at a rarefied level; there is a mundane, largely economic reality to 
support my claim that these sciences and technologies indicate fundamen¬ 
tal transformations in the structure of the world for us. Communications 
technologies depend on electronics. Modem states, multinational corpora¬ 
tions, military power, welfare-state apparatuses, satellite systems, politi¬ 
cal processes, fabrication of our imaginations, labor-control systems, 
medical constructions of our bodies, commercial pornography, the interna¬ 
tional division of labor, and religious evangelism depend intimately upon 
electronics. Microelectronics is the technical basis of simulacra, that is, 
of copies without originals. 

Microelectronics mediates the translations of labor into robotics and 
word processing, sex into genetic engineering and reproductive technolo¬ 
gies, and mind into artificial intelligence and decision procedures. The 
new biotechnologies concern more than human reproduction. Biology as 
a powerful engineering science for redesigning materials and processes 
has revolutionary implications for industry, perhaps most obvious today 
in areas of fermentation, agriculture, and energy. Communications sci¬ 
ences and biology are constructions of natural-technical objects of knowl¬ 
edge in which the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly 
blurred; mind, body, and tool are on very intimate terms. The “multina¬ 
tional” material organization of the production and reproduction of daily 
life and the symbolic organization of the production and reproduction of 
culture and imagination seem equally implicated. The boundary-maintain¬ 
ing images of base and superstructure, public and private, or material and 
ideal never seemed more feeble. 

I have used Rachel Grossman’s image of women in the integrated circuit 
to name the situation of women in a world so intimately restructured 
through the social relations of science and technology. 20 1 use the odd 
circumlocution, “the social relations of science and technology,” to indi¬ 
cate that we are not dealing with a technological determinism, but with a 
historical system depending upon structured relations among people. But 
the phrase should also indicate that science and technology provide fresh 
sources of power, that we need fresh sources of analysis and political 
action. 21 Some of the rearrangements of race, sex, and class rooted in 
high-tech-facilitated social relations can make socialist feminism more 
relevant to effective progressive politics. 

The Homework Economy 

The “New Industrial Revolution” is producing a new worldwide work¬ 
ing class, as well as new sexualities and ethnicities. The extreme mobility 
of capital and the emerging international division of labor are intertwined 



208 / Donna Haraway 


with the emergence of new collectivities and the weakening of familiar 
groupings. These developments are neither gender- nor race-neutral. 
White men in advanced industrial societies have become newly vulnerable 
to permanent job loss, and women are not disappearing from the job rolls 
at the same rates as men. It is not simply that women in third-world 
countries are the preferred labor force for the science-based multinationals 
in the export-processing sectors, particularly in electronics. The picture 
is more systematic and involves reproduction, sexuality, culture, con¬ 
sumption, and production. In the prototypical Silicon Valley, many wom¬ 
en’s lives have been structured around employment in electronics-depen- 
dent jobs, and their intimate realities include serial heterosexual 
monogamy, negotiating child care, distance from extended kin or most 
other forms of traditional community, a high likelihood of loneliness and 
extreme economic vulnerability as they age. The ethnic and racial diversity 
of women in Silicon Valley structures a microcosm of conflicting differ¬ 
ences in culture, family, religion, education, and language. 

Richard Gordon has called this new situation the homework economy. 22 
Although he includes the phenomenon of literal homework emerging 
in connection with electronics assembly, Gordon intends “homework 
economy” to name a restructuring of work that broadly has the characteris¬ 
tics formerly ascribed to female jobs, jobs literally done only by women. 
Work is being redefined as both literally female and feminized, whether 
performed by men or women. To be feminized means to be made ex¬ 
tremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as a 
reserve labor force; seen less as workers than as servers; subjected to time 
arrangements on and off the paid job that make a mockery of a limited 
work day; leading an existence that always borders on being obscene, out 
of place, and reducible to sex. De-skilling is an old strategy newly applica¬ 
ble to formerly privileged workers. However, the homework economy 
does not refer only to large-scale de-skilling, nor does it deny that new 
areas of high skill are emerging, even for women and men previously 
excluded from skilled employment. Rather, the concept indicates that 
factory, home, and market are integrated on a new scale and that the 
places of women are crucial—and need to be analyzed for differences 
among women and for meanings for relations between men and women 
in various situations. 

The homework economy as a world capitalist organizational structure 
is made possible by (not caused by) the new technologies. The success of 
the attack on relatively privileged, mostly white men’s unionized jobs is 
tied to the power of the new communications technologies to integrate 
and control labor despite extensive dispersion and decentralization. The 
consequences of the new technologies are felt by women both in the loss 
of the family (male) wage (if they ever had access to this white privilege) 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 209 


and in the character of their own jobs, which are becoming capital- 
intensive, for example, office work and nursing. 

The new economic and technological arrangements are also related to 
the collapsing welfare state and the ensuing intensification of demands on 
women to sustain daily life for themselves as well as for men, children, 
and old people. The feminization of poverty—generated by dismantling 
the welfare state, by the homework economy where stable jobs become 
the exception, and sustained by the expectation that women’s wage will 
not be matched by a male income for the support of children—has become 
an urgent focus. The causes of various women-headed households are a 
function of race, class, or sexuality; but their increasing generality is a 
ground for coalitions of women on many issues. That women regularly 
sustain daily life partly as a function of their enforced status as mothers 
is hardly new; the kind of integration with the overall capitalist and 
progressively war-based economy is new. The particular pressure, for 
example, on U.S. black women, who have achieved an escape from 
(barely) paid domestic service and who now hold clerical and similar jobs 
in large numbers, has large implications for continued enforced black 
poverty with employment. Teenage women in industrializing areas of the 
third world increasingly find themselves the sole or major source of a cash 
wage for their families, while access to land is ever more problematic. 
These developments must have major consequences in the psychodynam¬ 
ics and politics of gender and race. 

Within the narrative framework of three major stages of capitalism 
(commercial/early industrial, monopoly, multinational)—tied to national¬ 
ism, imperialism, and multinationalism, and related to Jameson’s three 
dominant aesthetic periods of realism, modernism, and postmodernism— 
I would argue that specific forms of families dialectically relate to forms 
of capital and to its political and cultural concomitants. Although lived 
problematically and unequally, ideal forms of these families might be 
schematized as (1) the patriarchal nuclear family, structured by the dichot¬ 
omy between public and private and accompanied by the white bourgeois 
ideology of separate spheres and nineteenth-century Anglo-American 
bourgeois feminism; (2) the modem family mediated (or enforced) by the 
welfare state and institutions like the family wage, with a flowering of a- 
feminist heterosexual ideologies, including their radical versions repre¬ 
sented in Greenwich Village around World War I; and (3) the “family” of 
the homework economy with its oxymoronic structure of women-headed 
households and its explosion of feminisms and the paradoxical intensifica¬ 
tion and erosion of gender itself. 

This is the context in which the projections for worldwide structural 
unemployment stemming from the new technologies are part of the picture 
of the homework economy. As robotics and related technologies put men 



210 / Donna Haraway 


out of work in “developed” countries and exacerbate failure to generate 
male jobs in third-world “development” and as the automated office be¬ 
comes the rule even in labor-surplus countries, the feminization of work 
intensifies. Black women in the United States have long known what it 
looks like to face the structural underemployment (“feminization”) of 
black men, as well as their own highly vulnerable position in the wage 
economy. It is no longer a secret that sexuality, reproduction, family, and 
community life are interwoven with this economic structure in myriad 
ways which have also differentiated the situations of white and black 
women. Many more women and men will contend with similar situations, 
which will make cross-gender and race alliances on issues of basic life 
support (with or without jobs) necessary, not just nice. 

The new technologies also have a profound effect on hunger and on food 
production for subsistence worldwide. Rae Lessor Blumberg estimates that 
women produce about 50 percent of the world’s subsistence food. 23 * 
Women are excluded generally from benefiting from the increased high- 
tech commodification of food and energy crops, their days are made more 
arduous because their responsibilities to provide food do not diminish, and 
their reproductive situations are made more complex. Green Revolution 
technologies interact with other high-tech industrial production to alter 
gender divisions of labor and differential gender migration patterns. 

The new technologies seem deeply involved in the forms of “privatiza¬ 
tion” that Ros Petchesky has analyzed, in which militarization, right-wing 
family ideologies and policies, and intensified definitions of corporate 
(and state) property as private synergistically interact. 24 The new commu¬ 
nications technologies are fundamental to the eradication of “public life” 
for everyone. This facilitates the mushrooming of a permanent high-tech 
military establishment at the cultural and economic expense of most 
people, but especially of women. Technologies like video games and 
highly miniaturized television seem crucial to production of modem forms 
of “private life.” The culture of video games is heavily oriented to individ¬ 
ual competition and extraterrestrial warfare. High-tech, gendered imagina- 


*The conjunction of the Green Revolution's social relations with biotechnologies like 
plant genetic engineering makes the pressures on the land in the third world increasingly 
intense. The Agency for International Development’s estimates (New York Times October 
14, 1984) used at the 1984 World Food Day are that in Africa, women produce about 90 
percent of rural food supplies, about 60 to 80 percent in Asia, and provide 40 percent of 
agricultural labor in the Near East and Latin America. Blumberg charges that world 
organizations’ agricultural politics, as well as those of multinationals and national govern¬ 
ments in the third world, generally ignore fundamental issues in the sexual division of 
labor. The present tragedy of famine in Africa might owe as much to male supremacy as 
to capitalism, colonialism, and rain patterns. More accurately, capitalism and racism are 
usually structurally male dominant. 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 211 


tions are produced here, imaginations that can contemplate destruction of 
the planet and a sci-fi escape from its consequences. More than our 
imaginations is militarized, and the other realities of electronic and nuclear 
warfare are inescapable. These are the technologies that promise ultimate 
mobility and perfect exchange—and incidentally enable tourism, that 
perfect practice of mobility and exchange, to emerge as one of the world’s 
largest single industries. 

The new technologies affect the social relations of both sexuality and 
reproduction, and not always in the same ways. The close ties of sexuality 
and instrumentality, of views of the body as a kind of private satisfaction- 
and utility-maximizing machine, are described nicely in sociobiological 
origin stories that stress a genetic calculus and explain the inevitable 
dialectic of domination of male and female gender roles. 25 These sociobio¬ 
logical stories depend on a high-tech view of the body as a biotic compo¬ 
nent or cybernetic communications system. Among the many transforma¬ 
tions of reproductive situations is the medical one, where women’s bodies 
have boundaries newly permeable to both “visualization” and “interven¬ 
tion.” Of course, who controls the interpretation of bodily boundaries in 
medical hermeneutics is a major feminist issue. The speculum served as 
an icon of women’s claiming their bodies in the 1970s; that handcrafted 
tool is inadequate to express our needed body politics in the negotiation 
of reality in the practices of cyborg reproduction. Self-help is not enough. 
The technologies of visualization recall the important cultural practice of 
hunting with the camera and the deeply predatory nature of a photographic 
consciousness. 26 Sex, sexuality, and reproduction are central actors in 
high-tech myth systems structuring our imaginations of personal and social 
possibility. 

Another critical aspect of the social relations of the new technologies 
is the reformulation of expectations, culture, work, and reproduction for 
the large scientific and technical work force. A major social and political 
danger is the formation of a strongly bimodal social structure, with masses 
of women and men of all ethnic groups, but especially people of color, 
confined to a homework economy, illiteracy of several varieties, and 
general redundancy and impotence, controlled by high-tech repressive 
apparatuses ranging from entertainment to surveillance and disappearance. 
An adequate socialist-feminist politics should address women in the privi¬ 
leged occupational categories and particularly in the production of science 
and technology that constructs scientific-technical discourse, processes, 
and objects. 2 

This issue is only one aspect of inquiry into the possibility of a feminist 
science, but it is important. What kind of constitutive role in the production 
of knowledge, imagination, and practice can new groups doing science 
have? How can these groups be allied with progressive social and political 



212 / Donna Haraway 


movements? What kind of political accountability can be constructed to 
tie women together across the scientific-technical hierarchies separating 
us? Might there be ways of developing feminist science/technology politics 
in alliance with anti-military science facility conversion action groups? 
Many scientific and technical workers in Silicon Valley, the high-tech 
cowboys included, do not want to work on military science. 28 Can these 
personal preferences and cultural tendencies be welded into progressive 
politics among this professional middle class in which women, including 
women of color, are coming to be fairly numerous? 

Women in the Integrated Circuit 

Let me summarize the picture of women’s historical locations in ad¬ 
vanced industrial societies, as these positions have been restructured partly 
through the social relations of science and technology. If it was ever 
possible ideologically to characterize women’s lives by the distinction of 
public and private domains—suggested by images of the division of 
working-class life into factory and home, of bourgeois life into market 
and home, and of gender existence into personal and political realms—it 
is now a totally misleading ideology, even to show how both terms of 
these dichotomies construct each other in practice and in theory. I prefer 
a network ideological image, suggesting the profusion of spaces and 
identities and the permeability of boundaries in the personal body and in the 
body politic. “Networking” is both a feminist practice and a multinational 
corporate strategy—weaving is for oppositional cyborgs. 

So let me return to the earlier image of the informatics of domination 
and trace one vision of women’s “place” in the integrated circuit, touching 
only a few idealized social locations seen primarily from the point of view 
of advanced capitalist societies: Home, Market, Paid Work Place, State, 
School, Clinic-Hospital, and Church. Each of these idealized spaces is 
logically and practically implied in every other locus, perhaps analogous 
to a holographic photograph. I want to suggest the impact of the social 
relations mediated and enforced by the new technologies in order to 
help formulate needed analysis and practical work. However, there is no 
“place” for women in these networks, only geometries of difference and 
contradiction crucial to women’s cyborg identities. If we learn how to 
read these webs of power and social life, we might learn new couplings, 
new coalitions. There is no way to read the following list from a standpoint 
of “identification,” of a unitary self. The issue is dispersion. The task is 
to survive in diaspora. 

Home: Women-headed households, serial monogamy, flight of men, 
old women alone, technology of domestic work, paid home work, reemer¬ 
gence of home sweatshops, home-based businesses and telecommuting. 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 213 


electronic cottage, urban homelessness, migration, module architecture, 
reinforced (simulated) nuclear family, intense domestic violence. 

Market: Women’s continuing consumption work, newly targeted to buy 
the profusion of new production from the new technologies (especially as 
the competitive race among industrialized and industrializing nations to 
avoid dangerous mass unemployment necessitates finding ever bigger new 
markets forever less clearly needed commodities); bimodal buying power, 
coupled with advertising targeting of the numerous affluent groups and 
neglect of the previous mass markets; growing importance of informal 
markets in labor and commodities parallel to high-tech, affluent market 
structures; surveillance systems through electronic funds transfer; intensi¬ 
fied market abstraction (commodification) of experience, resulting in inef¬ 
fective utopian or equivalent cynical theories of community; extreme 
mobility (abstraction) of marketing/financing systems; interpenetration 
of sexual and labor markets; intensified sexualization of abstracted and 
alienated consumption. 

Paid Work Place: Continued intense sexual and racial division of labor, 
but considerable growth of membership in privileged occupational catego¬ 
ries for many white women and people of color; impact of new technolo¬ 
gies on women’s work in clerical, service, manufacturing (especially 
textiles), agriculture, electronics; international restructuring of the work¬ 
ing classes; development of new time arrangements to facilitate the home¬ 
work economy (flex time, part time, overtime, no time); homework and 
out work; increased pressures for two-tiered wage structures; significant 
numbers of people in cash-dependent populations worldwide with no 
experience or no further hope of stable employment; most labor “marginal” 
or “feminized.” 

State: Continued erosion of the welfare state; decentralizations with 
increased surveillance and control; citizenship by telematics; imperialism 
and political power broadly in the form of information-rich/information- 
poor differentiation; increased high-tech militarization increasingly op¬ 
posed by many social groups; reduction of civil service jobs as a result of 
the growing capital intensification of office work, with implications for 
occupational mobility for women of color; growing privatization of mate¬ 
rial and ideological life and culture; close integration of privatization and 
militarization, the high-tech forms of bourgeois capitalist personal and 
public life; invisibility of different social groups to each other, linked to 
psychological mechanisms of belief in abstract enemies. 

School: Deepening coupling of high-tech capital needs and public edu¬ 
cation at all levels, differentiated by race, class, and gender; managerial 
classes involved in educational reform and refunding at the cost of remain¬ 
ing progressive educational democratic structures for children and teach¬ 
ers; education for mass ignorance and repression in technocratic and 



214 / Donna Haraway 


militarized culture; growing anti-science mystery cults in dissenting and 
radical political movements; continued relative scientific illiteracy among 
white women and people of color; growing industrial direction of educa¬ 
tion (especially higher education) by science-based multinationals (partic¬ 
ularly in electronics- and biotechnology-dependent companies); highly 
educated, numerous elites in a progressively bimodal society. 

Clinic-Hospital: Intensified machine-body relations; renegotiations of 
public metaphors which channel personal experience of the body, particu¬ 
larly in relation to reproduction, immune system functions, and “stress” 
phenomena; intensification of reproductive politics in response to world 
historical implications of women’s unrealized, potential control of their 
relation to reproduction; emergence of new historically specific diseases; 
struggles over meanings and means of health in environments pervaded 
by high-technology products and processes; continuing feminization of 
health work; intensified struggle over state responsibility for health; contin¬ 
ued ideological role of popular health movements as a major form of 
American politics. 

Church: Electronic fundamentalist “super-saver” preachers solemnizing 
the union of electronic capital and automated fetish gods; intensified 
importance of churches in resisting the militarized state; central struggle 
over women’s meanings and authority in religion; continued relevance of 
spirituality, intertwined with sex and health, in political struggle. 

The only way to characterize the informatics of domination is as a 
massive intensification of insecurity and cultural impoverishment, with 
common failure of subsistence networks for the most vulnerable. Since 
much of this picture interweaves with the social relations of science 
and technology, the urgency of a socialist-feminist politics addressed to 
science and technology is plain. There is much now being done, and the 
grounds for political work are rich. For example, the efforts to develop 
forms of collective struggle for women in paid work, like District 925 of 
the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) should be a high 
priority for all of us. These efforts are profoundly tied to technical restruc¬ 
turing of labor processes and reformations of working classes. These 
efforts also are providing understanding of a more comprehensive kind of 
labor organization, involving community, sexuality, and family issues 
never privileged in the largely white male industrial unions. 

The structural rearrangements related to the social relations of science 
and technology evoke strong ambivalence. But it is not necessary to be 
ultimately depressed by the implications of late twentieth-century wom¬ 
en’s relation to all aspects of work, culture, production of knowledge, 
sexuality, and reproduction. For excellent reasons, most Marxisms see 
domination best and have trouble understanding what can only look like 
false consciousness and people’s complicity in their own domination in 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 215 


late capitalism. It is crucial to remember that what is lost, perhaps espe¬ 
cially from women’s points of view, is often virulent forms of oppression, 
nostalgically naturalized in the face of current violation. Ambivalence 
toward the disrupted unities mediated by high-tech culture requires not 
sorting consciousness into categories of “clear-sighted critique grounding 
a solid political epistemology” versus “manipulated false consciousness,” 
but subtle understanding of emerging pleasures, experiences, and powers 
with serious potential for changing the rules of the game. 

There are grounds for hope in the emerging bases for new kinds of unity 
across race, gender, and class, as these elementary units of socialist- 
feminist analysis themselves suffer protean transformations. Intensifica¬ 
tions of hardship experienced worldwide in connection with the social 
relations of science and technology are severe. But what people are 
experiencing is not transparently clear, and we lack sufficiently subtle 
connections for collectively building effective theories of experience. 
Present efforts—Marxist, psychoanalytic, feminist, anthropological—to 
clarify even “our” experience are rudimentary. 

I am conscious of the odd perspective provided by my historical posi¬ 
tion—a Ph.D. in biology for an Irish Catholic girl was made possible by 
Sputnik’s impact on U.S. national science-education policy. I have a body 
and mind as much constructed by the post-World War II arms race and 
cold war as by the women’s movements. There are more grounds for hope 
by focusing on the contradictory effects of politics designed to produce 
loyal American technocrats, which as well produced large numbers of 
dissidents, rather than by focusing on the present defeats. 

The permanent partiality of feminist points of view has consequences 
for our expectations of forms of political organization and participation. 
We do not need a totality in order to work well. The feminist dream of 
a common language, like all dreams for a perfectly true language, of a 
perfectly faithful naming of experience, is a totalizing and imperialist one. 
In that sense, dialectics too is a dream language, longing to resolve 
contradiction. Perhaps, ironically, we can learn from our fusions with 
animals and machines how not to be Man, the embodiment of Western 
logos. From the point of view of pleasure in these potent and taboo fusions, 
made inevitable by the social relations of science and technology, there 
might indeed be a feminist science. 

Cyborgs: A Myth of Political Identity 

I want to conclude with a myth about identity and boundaries which 
might inform late twentieth-century political imaginations. I am indebted 
in this story to writers like Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, John Varley, 
James Tiptree, Jr., Octavia Butler, and Vonda McIntyre. 29 These are our 



216 / Donna Haraway 


storytellers exploring what it means to be embodied in high-tech worlds. 
They are theorists for cyborgs. Exploring conceptions of bodily boundaries 
and social order, the anthropologist Mary Douglas should be credited with 
helping us to consciousness about how fundamental body imagery is to 
world view and so to political language. 10 French feminists like Luce 
Irigaray and Monique Wittig, for all their differences, know how to write 
the body, how to weave eroticism, cosmology, and politics from imagery 
of embodiment, and especially for Wittig, from imagery of fragmentation 
and reconstitution of bodies. 11 

American radical feminists like Susan Griffin, Audre Lorde, and Adri¬ 
enne Rich have profoundly affected our political imaginations—and per¬ 
haps restricted too much what we allow as a friendly body and political 
language. 12 They insist on the organic, opposing it to the technological. 
But their symbolic systems and the related positions of eco-feminism and 
feminist paganism, replete with organicisms, can only be understood 
in Sandoval’s terms as oppositional ideologies fitting the late twentieth 
century. They would simply bewilder anyone not preoccupied with the 
machines and consciousness of late capitalism. In that sense they are part 
of the cyborg world. But there are also great riches for feminists in 
explicitly embracing the possibilities inherent in the breakdown of clean 
distinctions between organism and machine and similar distinctions struc¬ 
turing the Western self. It is the simultaneity of breakdowns that cracks 
the matrices of domination and opens geometric possibilities. What might 
be learned from personal and political “technological” pollution? I will 
look briefly at two overlapping groups of texts for their insight into the 
construction of a potentially helpful cyborg myth: constructions of women 
of color and monstrous selves in feminist science fiction. 

Earlier I suggested that “women of color” might be understood as a 
cyborg identity, a potent subjectivity synthesized from fusions of outsider 
identities and in the complex political-historical layerings of Audre 
Lorde’s “biomythography,” Zami. n There are material and cultural grids 
mapping this potential. Lorde captures the tone in the title of her book 
Sister Outsider. In my political myth. Sister Outsider is the offshore 
woman, whom U.S. workers, female and feminized, are supposed to 
regard as the enemy preventing their solidarity, threatening their security. 
Onshore, inside the boundary of the United States, Sister Outsider is a 
potential amid the races and ethnic identities of women manipulated for 
division, competition, and exploitation in the same industries. “Women 
of color” are the preferred labor force for the science-based industries, the 
real women for whom the worldwide sexual market, labor market, and 
politics of reproduction kaleidoscope into daily life. Young Korean women 
hired in the sex industry and in electronics assembly are recruited from 
high schools, educated for the integrated circuit. Literacy, especially 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 217 


in English, distinguishes the “cheap” female labor so attractive to the 
multinationals. 

Contrary to Orientalist stereotypes of the “oral primitive,” literacy is a 
special mark of women of color, acquired by U.S. black women as well 
as men through a history of risking death to learn and to teach reading and 
writing. Writing has a special significance for all colonized groups. Writ¬ 
ing has been crucial to the Western myth of the distinction of oral and 
written cultures, primitive and civilized mentalities, and more recently to 
the erosion of that distinction in postmodernist theories attacking the 
phallogocentrism of the West, with its worship of the monotheistic, phal¬ 
lic, authoritative, and singular work, the unique and perfect name.' 4 
Contests for the meanings of writing are a major form of contemporary 
political struggle. Releasing the play of writing is deadly serious. The 
poetry and stories of U.S. women of color are repeatedly about writing, 
about access to the power to signify, but this time that power must be 
neither phallic nor innocent. Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, 
the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before 
writing, before Man. Cyborg writing is about the power to survive not on 
the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to 
mark the world that marked them as other. 

The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and 
displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities. In retelling 
origin stories, cyborg authors subvert the central myths of origin of West¬ 
ern culture. We have all been colonized by those origin myths, with their 
longing for fulfillment in apocalypse. The phallogocentric origin stories 
most crucial for feminist cyborgs are built into the literal technologies— 
technologies that write the world, biotechnology and microelectronics— 
that have recently textualized our bodies as code problems on the grid of 
C 3 I. Feminist cyborg stories have the task of recoding communication and 
intelligence to subvert command and control. 

Figuratively and literally, language politics pervade the struggles of 
women of color, and stories about language have a special power in the rich 
contemporary writing by U.S. women of color. For example, retellings of 
the story of the indigenous woman Malinche, mother of the mestizo 
“bastard” race of the new world, master of languages, and mistress of 
Cortes, carry special meaning for Chicana constructions of identity. 
Chem'e Moraga in Loving in the War Years explores the themes of identity 
when one never possessed the original language, never told the original 
story, never resided in the harmony of legitimate heterosexuality in the 
garden of culture, and so cannot base identity on a myth or a fall from 
innocence and right to natural names, mother’s or father’s. 35 Moraga’s 
writing, her superb literacy, is presented in her poetry as the same kind 
of violation as Malinche’s mastery of the conqueror’s language—a viola- 



218 / Donna Haraway 


tion, an illegitimate production, that allows survival. Moraga’s language 
is not “whole”; it is self-consciously spliced, a chimera of English and 
Spanish, both conqueror’s languages. But it is this chimeric monster, 
without claim to an original language before violation, that crafts the 
erotic, competent, potent identities of women of color. Sister Outsider 
hints at the possibility of world survival not because of her innocence, but 
because of her ability to live on the boundaries, to write without the 
founding myth of original wholeness, with its inescapable apocalypse of 
final return to a deathly oneness that Man has imagined to be the innocent 
and all-powerful Mother, freed at the End from another spiral of appropria¬ 
tion by her son. Writing marks Moraga’s body, affirms it as the body of 
a woman of color, against the possibility of passing into the unmarked 
category of the Anglo father or into the Orientalist myth of “original 
illiteracy” of a mother that never was. Malinche was mother here, not Eve 
before eating the forbidden fruit. Writing affirms Sister Outsider, not 
the Woman-before-the-Fall-into-Writing needed by the phallogocentric 
Family of Man. 

Writing is preeminently the technology of cyborgs, etched surfaces of 
the late twentieth century. Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and 
the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that 
translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism. 
That is why cyborg politics insist on noise and advocate pollution, rejoic¬ 
ing in the illegitimate fusions of animal and machine. These are the 
couplings which make Man and Woman so problematic, subverting the 
structure of desire, the force imagined to generate language and gender, 
and so subverting the structure and modes of reproduction of Western 
identity, of nature and culture, of mirror and eye, slave and master, body 
and mind. “We” did not originally choose to be cyborgs, but choice 
grounds a liberal politics and epistemology that imagines the reproduction 
of individuals before the wider replications of “texts.” 

From the perspective of cyborgs, freed of the need to ground politics 
in “our” privileged position of the oppression that incorporates all other 
dominations, the innocence of the merely violated, the ground of those 
closer to nature, we can see powerful possibilities. Feminisms and Marx¬ 
isms have run aground of Western epistemological imperatives to construct 
a revolutionary subject from the perspective of a hierarchy of oppressions 
and a latent position of moral superiority, innocence, and greater closeness 
to nature. With no available original dream of a common language or 
original symbiosis promising protection from hostile “masculine” separa¬ 
tion, but written into the play of a text that has no finally privileged reading 
or salvation history, to recognize “oneself’ as fully implicated in the 
world, frees us of the need to root politics in identification, vanguard 
parties, purity, and mothering. Stripped of identity, the bastard race 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 219 


teaches about the power of the margins and the importance of a mother 
like Malinche. Women of color have transformed her from the evil mother 
of masculinist fear into the originally literate mother who teaches survival. 

This is not just deconstruction but liminal transformation. Every story 
that begins with original innocence and privileges the return to wholeness 
imagines the drama of life to be individuation, separation, the birth of the 
self, the tragedy of autonomy, the fall into writing, alienation; that is, 
war, tempered by imaginary respite in the bosom of the Other. These plots 
are ruled by a reproductive politics—rebirth without flaw, perfection, 
abstraction. In this plot women are imagined either better or worse off, 
but all agree they have less selfhood, weaker individuation, more fusion 
to the oral, to Mother, less at stake in masculine autonomy. But there is 
another route to having less at stake in masculine autonomy, a route that 
does not pass through Woman, Primitive, Zero, the Mirror Stage and its 
imaginary. It passes through women and other present-tense, illegitimate 
cyborgs, not of Woman bom, who refuse the ideological resources of 
victimization so as to have a real life. These cyborgs are the people 
who refuse to disappear on cue, no matter how many times a Western 
commentator remarks on the sad passing of another primitive, another 
organic group done in by Western technology, by writing. 36 These real- 
life cyborgs, for example, the Southeast Asian village women workers in 
Japanese and U.S. electronics firms described by Aihwa Ong, are actively 
rewriting the texts of their bodies and societies. Survival is the stakes in 
this play of readings. 

To recapitulate, certain dualisms have been persistent in Western tradi¬ 
tions; they have all been systemic to the logics and practices of domination 
of women, people of color, nature, workers, animals—in short, domina¬ 
tion of all constituted as others, whose task is to mirror the self. Chief 
among these troubling dualisms are self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, 
male/female, civilized/primitive, reality/appearance, whole/part, agent/ 
resource, maker/made, active/passive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/ 
partial, God/man. The self is the One who is not dominated, who knows 
that by the service of the other; the other is the one who holds the future, 
who knows that by the experience of domination, which gives the lie to 
the autonomy of the self. To be One is to be autonomous, to be powerful, 
to be God; but to be One is to be an illusion and so to be involved in a 
dialectic of apocalypse with the other. Yet, to be other is to be multiple, 
without clear boundaries, frayed, insubstantial. One is too few, but two 
are too many. 

High-tech culture challenges these dualisms in intriguing ways. It is not 
clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and 
machine. It is not clear what is mind and what is body in machines that 
resolve into coding practices. Insofar as we know ourselves in both formal 



220 / Donna Haraway 


discourse (e.g., biology) and in daily practice, (e.g., the homework econ¬ 
omy in the integrated circuit), we find ourselves to be cyborgs, hybrids, 
mosaics, chimeras. Biological organisms have become biotic systems, 
communications devices like others. There is no fundamental, ontological 
separation in our formal knowledge of machine and organism, of technical 
and organic. The replicant Rachel in the film Blade Runner stands as the 
image of a cyborg culture’s fear, love, and confusion. 

One consequence is that our sense of connection to our tools is height¬ 
ened. The trance state experienced by many computer users has become 
a staple of science-fiction film and cultural jokes. Perhaps paraplegics and 
other severely handicapped people can (and sometimes do) have the most 
intense experiences of complex hybridization with other communication 
devices. 17 Anne McCaffrey’s prefeminist The Ship Who Sang explored the 
consciousness of a cyborg, hybrid of girl’s brain and complex machinery, 
formed after the birth of a severely handicapped child. Gender, sexuality, 
embodiment, skill: All were reconstituted in the story. Why should our 
bodies end at the skin or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin? 
From the seventeenth century till now, machines could be animated— 
given ghostly souls to make them speak or move or to account for their 
orderly development and mental capacities. Or organisms could be mecha¬ 
nized—reduced to body understood as resource of mind. These machine/ 
organism relationships are obsolete, unnecessary. For us, in imagination 
and in other practice, machines can be prosthetic devices, intimate compo¬ 
nents, friendly selves. We don’t need organic holism to give impermeable 
wholeness, the total woman and her feminist variants (mutants?). Let me 
conclude this point by a very partial reading of the logic of the cyborg 
monsters of my second group of texts, feminist science fiction. 

The cyborgs populating feminist science fiction make very problematic 
the statuses of man or woman, human, artifact, member of a race, individ¬ 
ual identity, or body. Katie King clarifies how pleasure in reading these 
fictions is not largely based on identification. Students facing Joanna Russ 
for the first time, students who have learned to take modernist writers like 
James Joyce or Virginia Woolf without flinching, do not know what to 
make of The Adventures of Alyx of The Female Man , where characters 
refuse the reader’s search for innocent wholeness while granting the wish 
for heroic quests, exuberant eroticism, and serious politics. The Female 
Man is the story of four versions of one genotype, all of whom meet, but 
even taken together do not make a whole, resolve the dilemmas of violent 
moral action, nor remove the growing scandal of gender. The feminist 
science fiction of Samuel Delany, especially Tales of Neveryon, mocks 
stories of origin by redoing the neolithic revolution, replaying the founding 
moves of Western civilization to subvert their plausibility. James Tiptree, 
Jr., an author whose fiction was regarded as particularly manly until her 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 221 


“true” gender was revealed, tells tales of reproduction based on nonmam¬ 
malian technologies like alternation of generations or male brood pouches 
and male nurturing. John Varley constructs a supreme cyborg in his arch¬ 
feminist exploration of Gaea, a mad goddess-planet-trickster-old-woman- 
technological device on whose surface an extraordinary array of post 
cyborg symbioses are spawned. Octavia Butler writes of an African sorcer¬ 
ess pitting her powers of transformation against the genetic manipulations 
of her rival (Wild Seed), of time warps that bring a modem U.S. black 
woman into slavery where her actions in relation to her white master- 
ancestor determine the possibility of her own birth (Kindred), and of the 
illegitimate insights into identity and community of an adopted cross¬ 
species child who came to know the enemy as self (Survivor). In her 
recent novel, Dawn( 1987), the first installment of a series called Xenogen- 
esis, Butler tells the story of Lilith Iyapo, whose personal name recalls 
Adam’s first and repudiated wife and whose family name marks her status 
as the widow of the son of Nigerian immigrants to the United States. A 
black woman and a mother whose child is dead, Lilith mediates the 
transformation of humanity through genetic exchange with extraterrestrial 
lovers/rescuers/destroyers/genetic engineers, who reform earth’s habitats 
after the nuclear holocaust and coerce surviving humans into intimate 
fusion with them. It is a novel that interrogates reproductive, linguistic, 
and nuclear politics in a mythic field structured by late twentieth-century 
race and gender. 

Because it is particularly rich in boundary transgressions, Vonda McIn¬ 
tyre’s Superluminal can close this truncated catalogue of promising and 
dangerous monsters who help redefine the pleasures and politics of em¬ 
bodiment and feminist writing. In a fiction where no character is “simply” 
human, human status is highly problematic. Orca, a genetically altered 
diver, can speak with killer whales and survive deep ocean conditions, 
but she longs to explore space as a pilot, necessitating bionic implants 
jeopardizing her kinship with the divers and cetaceans. Transformations 
are effected by virus vectors carrying a new developmental code, by 
transplant surgery, by implants of microelectronic devices, by analogue 
doubles, and by other means. Laenea becomes a pilot by accepting a heart 
implant and a host of other alterations allowing survival in transit at speeds 
exceeding that of light. Radu Dracul survives a virus-caused plague on 
his outerworld planet to find himself with a time sense that changes the 
boundaries of spatial perception for the whole species. All the characters 
explore the limits of language, the dream of communicating experience, 
and the necessity of limitation, partiality, and intimacy even in this world 
of protean transformation and connection. Superluminal stands also for 
the defining contradictions of a cyborg world in another sense; it embodies 
textually the intersection of feminist theory and colonial discourse in the 



222 / Donna Haraway 


science fiction I have alluded to in this essay. This is a conjunction 
with a long history that many first world feminists have tried to repress, 
including myself in my readings of Superluminal before being called 
to account by Zoe Soufoulis, whose different location in the world 
system’s informatics of domination made her acutely alert to the 
imperialist moment of all science-fiction cultures, including women’s 
science fiction. From an Australian feminist sensitivity, Sofoulis remem¬ 
bered more readily McIntyre’s role as writer of the adventures of 
Captain Kirk and Spock in “Star Trek’’ than her rewriting the romance 
in Superluminal. 

Monsters have always defined the limits of community in Western 
imaginations. The centaurs and Amazons of ancient Greece established 
the limits of the centered polis of the Greek male human by their disruption 
of marriage and boundary pollutions of the warrior with animality and 
woman. Unseparated twins and hermaphrodites were the confused human 
material in early modem France who grounded discourse on the natural 
and supernatural, medical and legal, portents and diseases—all crucial to 
establishing modem identity. ,!t The evolutionary and behavioral sciences 
of monkeys and apes have marked the multiple boundaries of late twen¬ 
tieth-century industrial identities. Cyborg monsters in feminist science 
fiction define quite different political possibilities and limits from those 
proposed by the mundane fiction of Man and Woman. 

There are several consequences to taking seriously the imagery of 
cyborgs as other than our enemies. Our bodies, ourselves—bodies are 
maps of power and identity. Cyborgs are no exceptions. A cyborg body 
is not innocent; it was not bom in a garden; it does not seek unitary identity 
and so generates antagonistic dualisms without end (or until the world 
ends); it takes irony for granted. One is too few, and two is only one 
possibility. Intense pleasure in skill, machine skill, ceases to be a sin, but 
an aspect of embodiment. The machine is not an it to be animated, 
worshiped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect 
of our embodiment. We can be responsible for machines; they do not 
dominate or threaten us. We are responsible for boundaries; we are they. 
Up till now (once upon a time), female embodiment seemed to be given, 
organic, necessary; female embodiment seemed to mean skill in mothering 
and its metaphoric extensions. Only by being out of place could we take 
intense pleasure in machines and then with excuses that this was organic 
activity after all, appropriate to females. Cyborgs might consider more 
seriously the partial, fluid, sometimes aspect of sex and sexual embodi¬ 
ment. Gender might not be global identity after all, even if it has profound 
historical breadth and depth. 

The ideologically charged question of what counts as daily activity, as 
experience, can be approached by exploiting the cyborg image. Feminists 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 223 


have recently claimed that women are given to dailiness, that women 
more than men somehow sustain daily life, and so have a privileged 
epistemological position potentially. There is a compelling aspect to this 
claim, one that makes visible unvalued female activity and names it as 
the ground of life. But the ground of life? What about all the ignorance 
of women, all the exclusions and failures of knowledge and skill? What 
about men’s access to daily competence, to knowing how to build things, 
to take them apart, to play? What about other embodiments? Cyborg 
gender is a local possibility taking a global vengeance. Race, gender, and 
capital require a cyborg theory of wholes and parts. There is no drive in 
cyborgs to produce total theory, but there is an intimate experience of 
boundaries, their construction and deconstruction. There is a myth system 
waiting to become a political language to ground one way of looking at 
science and technology and challenging the informatics of domination— 
in order to act potently. 

One last image: organisms and organismic, holistic politics depend on 
metaphors of rebirth and invariably call on the resources of reproductive 
sex. I would suggest that cyborgs have more to do with regeneration 
and are suspicious of the reproductive matrix and of most birthing. For 
salamanders, regeneration after injury, such as the loss of a limb, involves 
regrowth of structure and restoration of function with the constant possibil¬ 
ity of twinning or other odd topographical productions at the site of former 
injury. The regrown limb can be monstrous, duplicated, potent. We have 
all been injured, profoundly. We require regeneration, not rebirth, and 
the possibilities for our reconstitution include the utopian dream of the 
hope for a monstrous world without gender. 

Cyborg imagery can help express two crucial arguments in this essay: 
(1) the production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that 
misses most of reality, probably always, but certainly now; (2) taking 
responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means 
refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and 
so means embracing the skillful task of reconstructing the boundaries of 
daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of 
our parts. It is not just that science and technology are possible means of 
great human satisfaction, as well as a matrix of complex dominations. 
Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which 
we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream 
not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is 
an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the 
circuits of the super savers of the New Right. It means both building and 
destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, spaces, stories. 
Although both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg 
than a goddess. 



224 / Donna Haraway 


Acknowledgments 

Research was funded by an Academic Senate Faculty Research Grant 
from the University of California, Santa Cruz. An earlier version of this 
chapter, on genetic engineering, appeared as “Lieber Kyborg als Gottin: 
Fur eine sozialistisch-feministische Unterwanderung der Gentechnolo- 
gie,” in Bemd-Peter Lange and Anna Marie Stuby, eds., (Berlin: Argu- 
ment-Sonderband 105, 1984), pp. 66-84. The cyborg manifesto grew 
from “New Machines, New Bodies, New Communities: Political Dilem¬ 
mas of a Cyborg Feminist,” The Scholar and the Feminist X: The Question 
of Technology Conference, April 1983. 

The people associated with the History of Consciousness Board of 
University of California, Santa Cruz, have had an enormous influence on 
this essay, so that it feels collectively authored more than most, although 
those I cite may not recognize their ideas. In particular, members of 
graduate and undergraduate feminist theory, science and politics, and 
theory and methods courses have contributed to the cyborg manifesto. 
Particular debts here are due Hilary Klein (“Marxism, Psychoanalysis, 
and Mother Nature”); Paul Edwards (“Border Wars: The Science and 
Politics of Artificial Intelligence”); Lisa Lowe (“Julia Kristeva’s Des 
Chinoises: Representing Cultural and Sexual Others”); Jim Clifford, “On 
Ethnographic Allegory,” in James Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds.. 
Writing Culture, the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (University of 
California Press, 1985), pp. 98-121. 

Parts of the chapter were my contribution to a collectively developed 
session. Poetic Tools and Political Bodies: Feminist Approaches to High 
Technology Culture, 1984 California American Studies Association, with 
History of Consciousness graduate students Zoe Soufoulis, “Jupiter 
Space”; Katie King, “The Pleasures of Repetition and the Limits of 
Identification in Feminist Science Fiction: Reimaginations of the Body 
after the Cyborg”; and Chela Sandoval, “The Construction of Subjectivity 
and Oppositional Consciousness in Feminist Film and Video.” Sandoval’s 
theory of oppositional consciousness was published as “Women Respond 
to Rascism: A Report on the National Women’s Studies Association 
Conference,” Center for Third World Organizing, Oakland, California, 
n.d. For Sofoulis’s semiotic-psychoanalytic readings of nuclear culture, 
see Z. Sofia, “Exterminating Fetuses: Abortion, Disarmament and the 
Sexo-Semiotics of Extraterrestrialism,” Nuclear Criticism issue, Diacrit¬ 
ics, Vol 14, No. 2, 1984, pp. 47-59. King’s manuscripts (“Questioning 
Tradition: Canon Formation and the Veiling of Power”; “Gender and 
Genre: Reading the Science Fiction of Joanna Russ”; “Varley’s Titan and 
Wizard: Feminist Parodies of Nature, Culture, and Hardware”) deeply 
inform the cyborg manifesto. 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 225 


Barbara Epstein, Jeff Escoffier, Rusten Hogness, and Jaye Miler gave 
extensive discussion and editorial help. Members of the Silicon Valley 
Research Project of the University of California, Santa Cruz and partici¬ 
pants in conferences and workshops sponsored by SVRP (Silicone Valley 
Research Project) have been very important, especially Rick Gordon, 
Linda Kimball, Nancy Snyder, Langdon Winner, Judith Stacey, Linda 
Lim, Patricia Femandez-Kelly, and Judith Gregory. Finally, I want to 
thank Nancy Hartsock for years of friendship and discussion on feminist 
theory and feminist science fiction. I also thank Elizabeth Bird for my 
favorite political button: Cyborgs for Earthly Survival. 

Notes 

1. Useful references to left and/or feminist radical science movements and 
theory and to biological/biotechnological issues include Ruth Bleier, Sci¬ 
ence and Gender: A Critique of Biology and Its Themes on Women (New 
York: Pergamon, 1984); Ruth Bleier, ed.. Feminist Approaches to Science 
(New York: Pergamon, 1986); Sandra Harding, The Science Question in 
Feminism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986); Anne Fausto- 
Sterling, Myths of Gender (New York: Basic Books, 1985): Stephen J. 
Gould, Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981); Ruth Hubbard, 
Mary Sue Henifin, Barbara Fried, eds., Biological Woman, the Convenient 
Myth (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1982); Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections 
on Gender and Science (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985); R. 
C. Lewontin, Steve Rose, and Leon Kamin, Not in Our Genes (New York: 
Pantheon, 1984); Radical Science Journal (from 1987, Science as Culture), 
26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ; Science for the People, 897 Main 
St., Cambridge, MA 02139. 

2. Starting points for left and/or feminist approaches to technology and politics 
include Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of 
Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New 
York: Basic Books, 1983); Joan Rothschild, Machina ex Dea: Feminist 
Perspectives on Technology (New York: Pergamon, 1983); Sharon Tra- 
week, Beantimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physics (Cam¬ 
bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988); R. M. Young and Les 
Levidov, eds., Science, Technology, and the Labour Process, Vols. 1-3 
(London: CSE Books); Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human 
Reason (San Francisco: Freeman, 1976); Langdon Winner, Autonomous 
Technology: Technics Out of Control as a Theme in Political Thought 
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977); Langdon Winner, The Whale and the 
Reactor (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1986); Jan Zimmerman, ed., 
The Technological Woman: Interfacing with Tomorrow (New York: 
Praeger, 1983); Tom Athanasiou, “High-tech Politics. The Case of Artificial 
Intelligence,” Socialist Review, No. 92, 1987, pp. 7-35; Carol Cohn, 
“Nuclear Language and How We Learned to Pat the Bomb,” Bulletin of 



226 / Donna Haraway 


Atomic Scientists, June 1987, pp. 17-24; Terry Winograd and Fernando 
Flores, Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for 
Design (New Jersey: Ablex, 1986); Paul Edwards, “Border Wars: The 
Politics of Artificial Intelligence,” Radical America, Vol. 19, No. 6, 1985, 
pp. 39-52; Global Electronics Newsletter, 867 West Dana St., #204, 
Mountain View, CA 94041; Processed World, 55 Sutter St., San Francisco, 
CA 94104; ISIS, Women’s International Information and Communication 
Service, P.O. Box 50 (Comavin), 1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland, and Via 
Santa Maria dell’Anima 30, 00186 Rome, Italy. Fundamental approaches 
to modem social studies of science that do not continue the liberal mystifica¬ 
tion that it all started with Thomas Kuhn, include: Karin Knorr-Cetina, The 
Manufacture of Knowledge (Oxford: Pergamon, 1981); K. D. Knorr-Cetina 
and Michael Mulkay, eds.. Science Observed: Perspectives on the Social 
Study of Science (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1983); Bruno Latour and Steve 
Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts 
(Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1979); Robert M. Young, “Interpreting the 
Production of Science,” New Scientist, Vol. 29, March 1979, pp. 1026- 
1028. More is claimed than is known about room for contesting productions 
of science in the mythic/material space of “the laboratory”; the 1984 Direc¬ 
tory of the Network for the Ethnographic Study of Science, Technology, 
and Organizations lists a wide range of people and projects crucial to better 
radical analysis; available from NESSTO, P.O. Box 11442, Stanford, CA 
94305. 

3. Fredric Jameson, “Post Modernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capital¬ 
ism,” New Left Review, July/August 1984, pp. 53-94. See Marjorie Perloff, 
“ ‘Dirty’ Language and Scramble Systems,” Sulfur Vol 2, 1984, pp. 178— 
183; Kathleen Fraser, Something (Even Human Voices) in the Foreground, 
a Lake (Berkeley, CA: Kelsey St. Press, 1984). For feminist modernist/ 
postmodernist cyborg writing, see How(ever), 871 Corbett Ave., San Fran¬ 
cisco, CA 94131. 

4. Frans de Waal, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among the Apes (New 
York: Harper & Row, 1982); Langdon Winner, “Do artifacts have politics?” 
Daedalus (Winter 1980): 121-136. 

5. Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, trans. P. Foss, P. Patton, P. Beitchman 
(New York: Semiotext(e), 1983). Jameson (“Postmodernism,” p. 66) points 
out that Plato’s definition of the simulacrum is the copy for which there is 
no original, i.e., the world of advanced capitalism, of pure exchange. 
See Discourse 9, Spring/Summer 1987, for a special issue on technology 
(Cybernetics, Ecology, and the Postmodern Imagination). 

6. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964); 
Carolyn Merchant, Death of Nature (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980). 

7. Zoe Sofia, “Exterminating Fetuses,” Diacritics, Vol. 14, No. 2, Summer 
1984, pp. 47-59, and “Jupiter Space” (Pomona, CA: American Studies 
Association, 1984). 

8. For ethnographic accounts and political evaluations, see Barbara Epstein, 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 227 


“The Politics of Prefigurative Community: The Non-Violent Direction Ac¬ 
tion Movement,” The Year Left, forthcoming, and Noel Sturgeon, qualify¬ 
ing essay on feminism, anarchism, and nonviolent direct-action politics. 
University of California, Santa Cruz, 1986. Without explicit irony, adopting 
the spaceship earth/whole earth logo of the planet photographed from space, 
set off by the slogan “Love Your Mother,” the May 1987 Mothers and 
Others Day action at the nuclear weapons testing facility in Nevada nonethe¬ 
less took account of the tragic contradictions of views of the earth. Demon¬ 
strators applied for official permits to be on the land from officers of 
the Western Shoshone tribe, whose territory was invaded by the U.S. 
government when it built the nuclear weapons test ground in the 1950s. 
Arrested for trespassing, the demonstrators argued that the police and 
weapons facility personnel, without authorization from the proper officials, 
were the trespassers. One affinity group at the women’s action called 
themselves the Surrogate Others, and in solidarity with the creatures forced 
to tunnel in the same ground with the bomb, they enacted a cyborgian 
emergence from the constructed body of a large, nonheterosexual desert 
worm. 

9. Powerful developments of coalition politics emerge from “third world” 
speakers, speaking from nowhere, the displaced center of the universe, 
earth: “We live on the third planet from the sun”— Sun Poem by Jamaican 
writer Edward Kamau Braithwaite, review by Nathaniel Mackey, Sulfur, 
Vol. 2, 1984, pp. 200-205. Home Girls, ed. Barbara Smith (New York: 
Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 1983), ironically subverts naturalized 
identities precisely while constructing a place from which to speak called 
home. See Bernice Reagan, “Coalition Politics, Turning the Century,” 
pp. 356-368. Trinh T. Minh-ha, ed., “She, the Inappropriate/d Other,” 
Discourse Vol. 8, Fall/Winter 1986-1987. 

10. Chela Sandoval, “Dis-Illusionment and the Poetry of the Future: The Mak¬ 
ing of Oppositional Consciousness,” Ph.D. qualifying essay. University of 
California, Santa Cruz, 1984. 

11. Bell Hooks, Ain't I a Woman? (Boston: South End Press, 1981); Bell 
Hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 
1984); Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds.. All the 
Women Are White, All the Men Are Black, But Some of Us Are Brave: 
Black Women's Studies (Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1982). Toni 
Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters (New York: Vintage/Random House, 
1981), writes an extraordinary postmodernist novel, in which the women 
of color theater group, The Seven Sisters, explores a form of unity. Elliott 
Butler-Evans, Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies and the 
Production of Ideology in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison 
and Alice Walker, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz, 
1987. 

12. On Orientalism in feminist works and elsewhere, see Lisa Lowe, “Orienta¬ 
tion: Representations of Cultural and Sexual ‘Others,’” Ph.D. thesis. Uni¬ 
versity of California, Santa Cruz; Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: 



228 / Donna Haraway 


Pantheon, 1978). Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Femi¬ 
nist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse,” Boundry Vol. 2, No. 12, and 
Vol 3, No. 13, 1984, pp. 333-357; “Many Voices, One Chant: Black 
Feminist Perspectives,” Feminist Review, Vol. 17, Autumn 1984. 

13. Katie King has developed a theoretically sensitive treatment of the workings 
of feminist taxonomies as genealogies of power in feminist ideology and 
polemic: Katie King, “Canons without Innocence,” Ph.D. thesis, University 
of California, Santa Cruz, 1987, and “The Situation of Lesbianism as 
Feminism’s Magical Sign: Contests for Meaning in the U.S. Women’s 
Movement, 1968-72,” Communication Vol. 9, No. 1, 1985, pp. 65- 
91. King examines an intelligent, problematic example of taxonomizing 
feminisms to make a little machine producing the desired final position; 
Alison Jaggar, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Totowa, NJ: Rowman 
& Allanheld, 1983). My caricature here of socialist and radical feminism 
is also an example. 

14. The feminist standpoint argument has been developed by Jane Flax, “Politi¬ 
cal Philosophy and the Patriarchal Unconsciousness,” Discovering Reality, 
ed. Sandra Harding and Merill Hintikka, (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1983); Sandra 
Harding, “The Contradictions and Ambivalence of a Feminist Science,” 
ms.; Harding and Hintikka, Discovering Reality, Nancy Hartsock, Money, 
Sex and Power (New York: Longman, 1983) and “The Feminist Standpoint: 
Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism,” 
Discovering Reality, ed. S. Harding and M. Hintikka; Mary O’Brien, The 
Politics of Reproduction (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981); 
Hilary Rose, “Hand, Brain, and Heart: A Feminist Epistemology for the 
Natural Sciences,” Signs, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1983, pp. 73-90; Dorothy Smith, 
“Women’s Perspective as a Radical Critique of Sociology,” Sociological 
Inquiry Vol 44, 1974, and “A Sociology of Women,” The Prism of Sex, 
ed. J. Sherman and E. T. Beck, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin 
Press, 1979). For rethinking theories of feminist materialism and feminist 
standpoint in response to criticism, see Chapter 7 in Harding, The Science 
Question in Feminism, op. cit. (note 1); Nancy Hartsock, “Rethinking 
Modernism: Minority vs. Majority Theories,” Cultural Critique 7 (1987): 
187-206; Hilary Rose, “Women’s Work: Women’s Knowledge,” What is 
Feminism? A Re-examination, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley (New 
York: Pantheon, 1986), pp. 161-83. 

15. Catherine MacKinnon, “Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An 
Agenda for Theory,” Signs, Vol. 7, No. 3, Spring 1982, pp. 515-544. 
See also MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified (Cambridge, MA: Harvard 
University Press, 1987). I make a category error in “modifying” MacKin¬ 
non’s positions with the qualifier “radical,” thereby generating my own 
reductive critique of extremely heterogeneous writing, which does explicitly 
use that label, by my taxonomically interested argument about writing 
which does not use the modifier and which brooks no limits and thereby 
adds to the various dreams of a common, in the sense of uni vocal, language 
for feminism. My category error was occasioned by an assignment to write 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 229 


from a particular taxonomic position which itself has a heterogeneous 
history, socialist feminism, for Socialist Review. A critique indebted to 
MacKinnon, but without the reductionism and with an elegant feminist 
account of Foucault’s paradoxical conservatism on sexual violence (rape), 
is Teresa de Lauretis, “The Violence of Rhetoric: Considerations on Repre¬ 
sentation and Gender,” Semiotica, Vol. 54, 1985, pp. 11-31, and Teresa 
de Lauretis, ed.. Feminist Studies/Critical Studies (Bloomington: Indiana 
University Press, 1986). A theoretically elegant feminist social-historical 
examination of family violence, that insists on women’s, men’s, and chil¬ 
dren’s complex agency without losing sight of the material structures of 
male domination, race, and class, is Linda Gordon, Heroes of their own 
Lives (New York: Viking, 1988). 

16. My previous efforts to understand biology as a cybernetic command-control 
discourse and organisms as “natural-technical objects of knowledge” are 
“The High Cost of Information in Post-World War II Evolutionary Biol¬ 
ogy,” Philosophical Forum, Vol. 13, Nos. 2-3, 1979, pp. 206-237; “Signs 
of Dominance: From a Physiology to a Cybernetics of Primate Society," 
Studies in History of Biology. Vol. 6, 1983, pp. 129-219; “Class, Race, 
Sex, Scientific Objects of Knowledge: A Socialist-Feminist Perspective 
on the Social Construction of Productive Knowledge and Some Political 
Consequences,” Women in Scientific and Engineering Professions, ed. 
Violet Haas and Carolyn Perucci (Ann Arbor, Ml: University of Michigan 
Press, 1984), pp. 212-229. 

17. E. Rusten Hogness, “Why Stress? A Look at the Making of Stress, 1936— 
1956,” available from the author, 4437 Mill Creek Rd., Healdsburg, CA 
95448. 

18. A left entry to the biotechnology debate: Genewatch, a Bulletin of the 
Committee for Responsible Genetics, 5 Doane St., 4th floor, Boston, 
MA 02109; Susan Wright, “Recombinant DNA Technology and Its Social 
Transformation, 1972-82,” Osiris, 2nd series, Vol. 2, 1986, pp. 303-360 
and “Recombinant DNA: The Status of Hazards and Controls,” Environ¬ 
ment, July/August 1982; Edward Yoxen, The Gene Business (New York: 
Harper & Row, 1983). 

19. Paula Treichler, “AIDS, Homophobia, and Biomedical Discourse: An Epi¬ 
demic of Signification,” forthcoming in Cultural Studies. 

20. Starting references for “women in the integrated circuit”: Scientific-Techno¬ 
logical Change and the Role of Women in Development, ed. Pamela D’Ono- 
frio-Flores and Sheila M. Pfafflin (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982); 
Maria Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, For We Are Sold, l and My People (Al¬ 
bany, NY: SUNY Press, 1983); Annette Fuentes and Barbara Ehrenreich, 
Women in the Global Factory (Boston: South End Press, 1983), with an 
especially useful list of resources and organizations; Rachael Grossman, 
“Women’s Place in the Integrated Circuit,” Radical America, Vol. 14, No. 
I, 1980, pp. 29-50; Women and Men and the International Division of 
Labor, ed. June Nash and M. P. Femandez-Kelly (Albany, NY: SUNY 



230 / Donna Haraway 


Press, 1983); Aihwa Ong, “Japanese Factories, Malay Workers: Industrial¬ 
ization and the Cultural Construction of Gender in West Malaysia, Power 
and Difference, ed. Shelly Errington and Jane Atkinson (Palo Alto, CA: 
Stanford University Press, forthcoming); Aihwa Ong, Spirits of Resistance 
and Capitalist Discipline: Factory’ Workers in Malaysia (Albany, SUNY 
Press, 1987); Science Policy Research Unity, Microelectronics and Wom¬ 
en’s Employment in Britain (University of Sussex, 1982). 

21. The best example is Bruno Latour, Les Microbes: Guerre et Paix, suivi de 
Irreductions (Paris: Metailie, 1984). 

22. For the homework economy and some related arguments: Richard Gordon, 
“The Computerization of Daily Life, the Sexual Division of Labor, and the 
Homework Economy,” paper delivered at the Silicon Valley Workshop 
Group conference, 1983; Richard Gordon and Linda Kimball, “High-Tech¬ 
nology, Employment and the Challenges of Education,” SVRG Working 
Paper, No. 1, July 1985; Judith Stacey, “Sexism by a Subtler Name? 
Postindustrial Conditions and Postfeminist Consciousness in the Silicon 
Valley,” Socialist Review, no. 96, 1987, pp. 7-30; Women’s Work, Men’s 
Work, ed. Barbara F. Reskin and Heidi Hartmann (Washington, DC: Na¬ 
tional Academy of Sciences Press, 1986); Signs, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1984, 
special issue on women and poverty; Stephen Rose, The American Profile 
Poster: Who Owns What, Who Makes How Much, Who Works Where, and 
Who Lives With Whom? (New York: Pantheon, 1986); Patricia Hill Collins, 
“Third World Women in America,” and Sara G. Burr, “Women and Work,” 
ed. Barbara K. Haber, The Women's Annual, 1981 (Boston: G. K. Hall, 
1982); Judith Gregory and Karen Nussbaum, “Race against Time: Automa¬ 
tion of the Office,” Office: Technology and People, Vol. 1, 1982, pp. 
197-236; Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, The New Class War: 
Reagan's Attack on the Welfare State and Its Consequences (New York: 
Pantheon, 1982); Microelectronics Group, Microelectronics: Capitalist 
Technology and the Working Class (London: CSE, 1980); Karin Stallard, 
Barbara Ehrenreich, and Holly Sklar, Poverty in the American Dream 
(Boston: South End Press, 1983) including a useful organization and re¬ 
source list. 

23. Rae Lessor Blumberg, “A General Theory of Sex Stratification and Its 
Application to the Position of Women in Today’s World Economy,” paper 
delivered to Sociology Board, University of California, Santa Cruz, Febru¬ 
ary 1983. Also R. L. Blumberg, Stratification: Socioeconomic and Sexual 
Inequality (Boston: Brown, 1981). See also Sally Hacker, “Doing It the 
Hard Way: Ethnographic Studies in the Agribusiness and Engineering Class¬ 
room,” California American Studies Association, Pomona, 1984, forthcom¬ 
ing in Humanity and Society, S. Hacker and Lisa Bovit, Agriculture to 
Agribusiness: Technical Imperatives and Changing Roles” Proceedings of 
the Society for the History of Technology, Milwaukee, 1981; Lawrence 
Busch and William Lacy, Science, Agriculture, and the Politics of Research 
(Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1983); Denis Wilfred, “Capital and Agricul¬ 
ture, a Review of Marxian Problematics,” Studies in Political Economy, 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 231 


No. 7, 1982, pp. 127-154; Carolyn Sachs, The Invisible Farmers: Women 
in Agricultural Production (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1983). 
International Fund for Agricultural Development, IFAD Experience Relat¬ 
ing to Rural Women, 1977-84 (Rome: IFAD, 1985), 37 pp. Thanks to 
Elizabeth Bird, “Green Revolution Imperialism," I & II, ms. University of 
California, Santa Cruz, 1984. 

24. Cynthia Enloe, “Women Textile Workers in the Militarization of Southeast 
Asia,” Women and Men, ed. Nash and Femandez-Kelly; Rosalind Pet- 
chesky, “Abortion, Anti-Feminism, and the Rise of the New Right,” Femi¬ 
nist Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1981. Cynthia Enloe, Does Khaki Become You? 
The Militarization of Women’s Lives (Boston: South End Press, 1983). 

25. For a feminist version of this logic, see Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, The Woman 
That Never Evolved (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981). 
For an analysis of scientific women’s story-telling practices, especially in 
relation to sociobiology, in evolutionary debates around child abuse and 
infanticide, see Donna Haraway, “The Contest for Primate Nature: Daugh¬ 
ters of Man the Hunter in the Field, 1960-80,” The Future of American 
Democracy, ed. Mark Kann (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983), 
pp. 175-208. See also D. Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and 
Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 1989). 

26. For the moment of transition of hunting with guns to hunting with cameras 
in the construction of popular meanings of nature for an American urban 
immigrant public, see Donna Haraway, “Teddy Bear Patriarchy,” Social 
Text, No. 11, Winter 1984-1985, pp. 20-64; Roderick Nash, “The Export¬ 
ing and Importing of Nature: Nature-Appreciation as a Commodity, 1850— 
1980,” Perspectives in American History, Vol. 3, 1979, pp. 517-560; 
Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Dell, 1977); and Douglas 
Preston, “Shooting in Paradise,” Natural History, Vol. 93, No. 12, Decem¬ 
ber 1984, pp. 14-19. 

27. For crucial guidance for thinking about the political/cultural implications 
of the history of women doing science in the United States see Women in 
Scientific and Engineering Professions, ed. Violet Haas and Carolyn Pe- 
rucci (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1984); Sally Hacker, 
“The Culture of Engineering: Women, Workplace, and Machine,” Women’s 
Studies International Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 3, 1981, pp. 341-353; Evelyn 
Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism (San Francisco: Freeman, 1983); 
National Science Foundation, Women and Minorities in Science and Engi¬ 
neering (Washington, DC: NSF, 1988); Margaret Rossiter, Women Scien¬ 
tists in America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982); 
Londa Schiebinger, “The History and Philosophy of Women in Science: A 
Review Essay,” Signs, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1987, pp. 305-332. 

28. John Markoff and Lenny Siegel, “Military Micros,” University of Califor¬ 
nia, Santa Cruz, Silicon Valley Research Project conference, 1983. High 
Technology Professionals for Peace and Computer Professionals for Social 
Responsibility are promising organizations. 



232 / Donna Haraway 


29. Katie King, “The Pleasure of Repetition and the Limits of Identification in 
Feminist Science Fiction: Reimaginations of the Body after the Cyborg,” 
California American Studies Association, Pomona, 1984. An abbreviated 
list of feminist science fiction underlying themes of this essay: Octavia 
Bulter, Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Kindred, Survivor; Suzy McKee 
Chamas, Motherlines; Samuel Delany, Tales of Neveryon; Anne McCaf- 
fery. The Ship Who Sang, Dinosaur Planet; Vonda McIntyre, Superlumi¬ 
nal, Dreamsnake; Joanna Russ, Adventures of Alyx, The Female Man; 
James Tiptree, Jr., Star Songs of an Old Primate, Up the Walls of the 
World; John Varley, Titan, Wizard, Demon. 

30. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 
1966), Natural Symbols (London: Cresset Press, 1970). 

31. French feminisms contribute to cyborg heteroglossia. Carolyn Burke, “Iri- 
garay through the Looking Glass Feminist Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer 
1981, pp. 288-306; Luce Irigaray, Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un (Paris: 
Minuit, 1977); L. Irigaray, Et Tune ne bouge pas sans Tautre (Paris: 
Minuit, 1979); New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de 
Courtivron (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980); 
Signs, Vol. 7, No. I, Autumn 1981, special issue on French feminism; 
Monique Wittig, The Lesbian Body, trans. David LeVay (New York: Avon, 
1975; Le corps lesbien, 1973). See especially Feminist Issues: A Journal 
of Feminist Social and Political Theory, 1 (1980), and Claire Duchen, 
Feminism in France: From May ’68 to Mitterand (London: Routledge 
Kegan & Paul, 1986). 

32. But all these poets are very complex, not least in treatment of themes of 
lying and erotic, decentered collective and personal identities. Susan Grif¬ 
fin, Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (New York: Harper & 
Row, 1978); Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing 
Press, 1984); Adrienne Rich, The Dream of a Common Language (New 
York: Norton, 1978). 

33. Audre Lorde, Zami, a New Spelling of my Name (Trumansburg, NY: 
Crossing Press, 1983); Katie King, “Audre Lorde: Layering History/Con¬ 
structing Poetry,” Canons without Innocence, Ph.D. thesis. University of 
California, Santa Cruz, 1987. 

34. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. and introd. G. C. Spivak (Balti¬ 
more, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), especially part II, 
“Nature, Culture, Writing”; Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. 
John Russell (New York: Criterion Books, 1961), especially “The Writing 
Lesson”; Henry Louis Gates, “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes,” 
in “Race,” Writing and Difference, special issue of Critical Inquiry, Vol. 
12, No. 1, Autumn 1985, pp. 1-20; Cultures in Contention, ed. Douglas 
Kahn and Diane Neumaier, (Seattle: Real Comet Press, 1985); Walter 
Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: 
Methuen, 1982); Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler, A Feminist Diction¬ 
ary (Boston: Pandora, 1985). 



A Manifesto for Cyborgs / 233 


35. Cherrie Moraga, Loving in the War Years (Boston: South End Press, 1983). 
The sharp relation of women of color to writing as theme and politics can 
be approached through "The Black Woman and the Diaspora: Hidden 
Connections and Extended Acknowledgments,” An International Literacy 
Conference, Michigan State University, October 1985; Black Women Writ¬ 
ers: A Critical Evaluation, ed. Mari Evans (Garden City, NY: Doubleday/ 
Anchor, 1984); Barbara Christian, Black Feminist Criticism (New York: 
Pergamon, 1985); The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United 
States, ed. Dexter Fisher (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980); several issues 
of Frontiers, especially vol. 5, 1980, “Chicanas en el Ambiente Nacional” 
and Vol. 7, 1983, “Feminisms in the Non-Westem World”; Maxine Hong 
Kingston, China Men (New York: Knopf, 1977); Black Women in White 
America: A Documentary History, ed. Gerda Lemer (New York: Vintage, 
1973); Paula Giddings, When and Where l Enter: The Impact of Black 
Women on Race and Sex in America (Toronto: Bantam, 1985); This Bridge 
Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherrie Moraga 
and Gloria Anzaldua (Watertown, MA: Persephone, 1981); Sisterhood Is 
Global, ed. Robin Morgan (Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1984). 
The writing of white women has had similar meanings: Sandra Gilbert and 
Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven, CT: Yale University 
Press, 1979); Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women’s Writing (Austin, 
TX: University of Texas Press, 1983). 

36. James Clifford argues persuasively for recognition of continuous cultural 
reinvention, the stubborn nondisappearance of those “marked” by Western 
imperializing practices; see “On Ethnographic Allegory” Clifford and Mar¬ 
cus, op. cit. (acknowledgments), and “On Ethnographic Authority,” Repre¬ 
sentations, Vol. I, No. 2 (1983), pp. 118-146. 

37. The convention of ideologically taming militarized high technology by 
publicizing its applications to speech and motion problems of the disabled- 
differently abled takes on a special irony in monotheistic, patriarchal, and 
frequently anti-Semitic culture when computer-generated speech allows a 
boy with no voice to chant the Haftorah at his bar mitzvah. See Vic Sussman, 
“Personal Technology Lends a Hand,” Washington Post Magazine, Nov. 
9, 1986, pp. 45—46. Making the always context-relative social definitions 
of “abledness” particularly clear, military high-tech has a way of making 
human beings disabled by definition, a perverse aspect of much automated 
battlefield and Star Wars R&D. See John Noble Welford, “Pilot’s Helmet 
Helps Interpret High Speed World,” New York Times, July 1, 1986, pp. 
21, 24. 

38. Page DuBois, Centaurs and Amazons (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michi¬ 
gan Press, 1982); Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, “Hermaphrodites 
in Renaissance France,” ms., n.d.; Katharine Park and Lorraine Daston, 
“Unnatural Conceptions: The Study of Monsters in 16th and 17th Century 
France and England,” Past and Present, No. 92, August 1981, pp. 20-54. 
The word monster shares its root with the verb to demonstrate. 



10 

Mapping the Postmodern 

Andreas Huyssen 


Time and again postmodernism has been denounced and ridiculed in 
recent debates, both by neoconservatives and the cultural Left in the 
United States. If such ridicule were all that could be said about postmod¬ 
ernism (apart from the equally vocal celebrations of the postmodern which 
do not hold much interest for me either), then it would not be worth the 
trouble of taking up the subject at all. I might just as well stop right here 
and join the formidable chorus of those who lament the loss of quality and 
proclaim the decline of the arts since the 1960s. My argument, however, 
will be a different one. While the recent media hype about postmodernism 
in architecture and the arts has propelled the phenomenon into the lime¬ 
light, it has also tended to obscure its long and complex history. Much of 
my ensuing argument will be based on the premise that what appears on 
one level as the latest fad, advertising pitch, and hollow spectacle, is part 
of a slowly emerging cultural transformation in Western societies, a 
change in sensibility for which the term postmodernism is actually, at least 
for now, wholly adequate. The nature and depth of that transformation 
are debatable, but transformation it is. I don’t want to be misunderstood 
as claiming that there is a wholesale paradigm shift of the cultural, social 
and economic orders;' any such claim clearly would be overblown. But 
in an important sector of our culture there is a noticeable shift in sensibility, 
practices and discourse formations which distinguishes a postmodern set 
of assumptions, experiences, and propositions from that of a preceding 
period. What needs further exploration is whether this transformation has 


This essay was first published in a slightly longer version in New German Critique, 
Vol. 33, Fall 1984, pp. 5-52. It was also published in Andreas Huyssen, After the Great 
Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University 
Press, 1986). 


234 


Mapping the Postmodern / 235 


generated genuinely new aesthetic forms in the various arts or whether it 
mainly recycles techniques and strategies of modernism itself, reinscribing 
them into an altered cultural context. Of course, there are good reasons 
why any attempt to take the postmodern seriously in its own terms meets 
with so much resistance. It is indeed tempting to dismiss many of the 
current manifestations of postmodernism as a fraud perpetrated on a 
gullible public by the New York art market in which reputations are 
built and gobbled up faster than painters can paint: witness the frenzied 
brush work of the new expressionists. It is also easy to argue that much of 
the contemporary inter-arts, mixed-media and performance culture, which 
once seemed so vital, is now spinning its wheels and speaking in tongues, 
relishing, as it were, the eternal recurrence of the deja vu. With good 
reason we may remain skeptical toward the revival of the Wagnerian 
Gesamtkunstwerk as postmodern spectacle in Syberberg or Robert Wilson. 
The current Wagner cult may indeed by a symptom of a happy collusion 
between the megalomania of the postmodern and that of the premodem 
on the edge of modernism. The search for the grail, it seems, is on. 

But it is almost too easy to ridicule the postmodernism of the current 
New York art scene or of Documenta 7. Such total rejection will blind us 
to postmodernism’s critical potential which, I believe, also exists, even 
though it may be difficult to identify. 2 The notion of the art work as 
critique actually informs some of the more thoughtful condemnations of 
postmodernism, which is accused of having abandoned the critical stance 
that once characterized modernism. However, the familiar ideas of what 
constitutes a critical art (Parteilichkeit and vanguardism, l’art engage, 
critical realism or the aesthetic of negativity, the refusal of representation, 
abstraction, reflexiveness) have lost much of their explanatory and norma¬ 
tive power in recent decades. This is precisely the dilemma of art in a 
postmodern age. Nevertheless, I see no reason to jettison the notion of a 
critical art altogether. The pressures to do so are not new; they have 
been formidable in capitalist culture ever since romanticism, and if our 
postmodemity makes it exceedingly difficult to hold on to an older notion 
of art as critique, then the task is to redefine the possibilities of critique 
in postmodern terms rather than relegating it to oblivion. If the postmodern 
is discussed as a historical condition rather than only as style it becomes 
possible and indeed important to unlock the critical moment in postmod¬ 
ernism itself and to sharpen its cutting edge, however blunt it may seem 
at first sight. What will no longer do is either to eulogize or to ridicule 
postmodernism en bloc. The postmodern must be salvaged from its cham¬ 
pions and from its detractors. This essay is meant to contribute to that 
project. 

In much of the postmodernism debate, a very conventional thought 
pattern has asserted itself. Either it is said that postmodernism is continu- 



236 / Andreas Huyssen 


ous with modernism, in which case the whole debate opposing the two is 
specious; or, it is claimed that there is a radical rupture, a break with 
modernism, which is then evaluated in either positive or negative terms. 
But the question of historical continuity or discontinuity simply cannot be 
adequately discussed in terms of such an either/or dichotomy. To have 
questioned the validity of such dichotomous thought patterns is of course 
one of the major achievements of Derridean deconstruction. But the 
poststructuralist notion of endless textuality ultimately cripples any mean¬ 
ingful historical reflection on temporal units shorter than, say, the long 
wave of metaphysics from Plato to Heidegger or the spread of modernite 
from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. The problem with such 
historical macro-schemes, in relation to postmodernism, is that they pre¬ 
vent the phenomenon from even coming into focus. 

I will therefore take a different route. I will not attempt here to define 
what postmodernism is. The term postmodernism itself should guard us 
against such an approach as it positions the phenomenon as relational. 
Modernism as that from which postmodernism is breaking away remains 
inscribed into the very word with which we describe our distance from 
modernism. Thus, keeping in mind postmodernism’s relational nature, I 
will simply start from the Selbstverstandnis of the postmodern as it has 
shaped various discourses since the 1960’s. What I hope to provide in this 
essay is something like a large-scale map of the postmodern which surveys 
several territories and on which the various postmodern artistic and critical 
practices could find their aesthetic and political place. Within the trajectory 
of the postmodern in the United States 1 will distinguish several phases 
and directions. My primary aim is to emphasize some of the historical 
contingencies and pressures that have shaped recent aesthetic and cultural 
debates but have either been ignored or systematically blocked out in 
critical theory a t’americaine. While drawing on developments in architec¬ 
ture, literature and the visual arts, my focus will be primarily on the 
critical discourse about the postmodern: postmodernism in relation to, 
respectively, modernism, the avantgarde, neo-conservatism and poststruc¬ 
turalism. Each of these constellations represents a somewhat separate 
layer of the postmodern and will be presented as such. And, finally, central 
elements of the Begriffsgeschichte of the term will be discussed in relation 
to a broader set of questions that have arisen in recent debates about 
modernism, modernity and the historical avantgarde.' A crucial question 
for me concerns the extent to which modernism and the avantgarde as 
forms of an adversary culture were nevertheless conceptually and practi¬ 
cally bound up with capitalist modernization and/or with communist van- 
guardism, that modernization’s twin brother. As I hope this essay will 
show, postmodernism’s critical dimension lies precisely in its radical 
questioning of those presuppositions which linked modernism and the 
avantgarde to the mindset of modernization. 



Mapping the Postmodern / 237 


The Exhaustion of the Modernist Movement 

Let me begin, then, with some brief remarks about the trajectory and 
migrations of the term postmodernism. In literary criticism it goes back 
as far as the late 1950s when it was used by Irving Howe and Harry Levin 
to lament the levelling off of the modernist movement. Howe and Levin 
were looking back nostalgically to what already seemed like a richer past. 
Postmodernism was first used emphatically in the 1960s by literary critics 
such as Leslie Fiedler and Ihab Hassan who held widely divergent views 
of what a postmodern literature was. It was only during the early and mid- 
1970s that the term gained a much wider currency, encompassing first 
architecture, then dance, theater, painting, film and music. While the 
postmodern break with classical modernism was fairly visible in architec¬ 
ture and the visual arts, the notion of a postmodern rupture in literature 
has been much harder to ascertain. At some point in the late 1970s, 
postmodernism, not without American prodding, migrated to Europe via 
Paris and Frankfurt. Kristeva and Lyotard took it up in France, Habermas 
in Germany. In the United States, meanwhile, critics had begun to discuss 
the interface of postmodernism with French poststructuralism in its pecu¬ 
liar American adaptation, often simply on the assumption that the avant- 
garde in theory somehow had to be homologous to the avantgarde in 
literature and the arts. While skepticism about the feasibility of an artistic 
avantgarde was on the rise in the 1970s, the vitality of theory, despite its 
many enemies, never seemed in serious doubt. To some, indeed, it ap¬ 
peared as if the cultural energies that had fueled the art movements of the 
1960s were flowing during the 1970s into the body of theory, leaving the 
artistic enterprise high and dry. While such an observation is at best of 
impressionistic value and also not quite fair to the arts, it does seem 
reasonable to say that, with postmodernism’s big-bang logic of expansion 
irreversible, the maze of the postmodern became ever more impenetrable. 
By the early 1980s the modemism/postmodemism constellation in the 
arts and the modemity/postmodemity constellation in social theory had 
become one of the most contested terrains in the intellectual life of Western 
societies. And the terrain is contested precisely because there is so much 
more at stake than the existence or non-existence of a new artistic style, 
so much more also than just the “correct” theoretical line. 

Nowhere does the break with modernism seem more obvious than in 
recent American architecture. Nothing could be further from Mies van 
der Rohe’s functionalist glass curtain walls than the gesture of random 
historical citation which prevails on so many postmodern facades. Take, 
for example, Philip Johnson’s AT&T highrise, which is appropriately 
broken up into a neoclassical mid-section, Roman colonnades at the street 
level and a Chippendale pediment at the top. Indeed, a growing nostalgia 
for various life forms of the past seems to be a strong undercurrent in the 



238 / Andreas Huyssen 


culture of the 1970s and 1980s. And it is tempting to dismiss this historical 
eclecticism, found not only in architecture, but in the arts, in film, in 
literature and in the mass culture of recent years, as the cultural equivalent 
of the neoconservative nostalgia for the good old days and as a manifest 
sign of the declining rate of creativity in late capitalism. But is this 
nostalgia for the past, the often frenzied and exploitative search for usable 
traditions, and the growing fascination with pre-modem and primitive 
cultures—is all of this rooted only in the cultural institutions’ perpetual 
need for spectacle and frill, and thus perfectly compatible with the status 
quo? Or does it perhaps also express some genuine and legitimate dissatis¬ 
faction with modernity and the unquestioned belief in the perpetual mod¬ 
ernization of art? If the latter is the case, which I believe it is, then how 
can the search for alternative traditions, whether emergent or residual, be 
made culturally productive without yielding to the pressures of conserva¬ 
tism which, with a vise-like grip, lays claim to the very concept of 
tradition? I am not arguing here that all manifestations of the postmodern 
recuperation of the past are to be welcomed because somehow they are in 
tune with the Zeitgeist. I also don’t want to be misunderstood as arguing 
that postmodernism’s fashionable repudiation of the high modernist aes¬ 
thetic and its boredom with the propositions of Marx and Freud, Picasso 
and Brecht, Kafka and Joyce, Schonberg and Stravinsky are somehow 
marks of a major cultural advance. Where postmodernism simply jettisons 
modernism it just yields to the cultural apparatus’ demands that it legiti¬ 
mize itself as radically new, and it revives the philistine prejudices modern¬ 
ism faced in its own time. 

But even if postmodernism’s own propositions don’t seem convinc¬ 
ing—as embodied, for example, in the buildings by Philip Johnson, 
Michael Graves and others—that does not mean that continued adherence 
to an older set of modernist propositions would guarantee the emergence 
of more convincing buildings or works of art. The recent neoconservative 
attempt to reinstate a domesticated version of modernism as the only 
worthwhile truth of twentieth-century culture—manifest for instance in 
the 1984 Beckmann exhibit in Berlin and in many articles in Hilton 
Kramer’s New Criterion —is a strategy aimed at burying the political and 
aesthetic critiques of certain forms of modernism which have gained 
ground since the 1960s. But the problem with modernism is not just the 
fact that it can be integrated into a conservative ideology of art. After all, 
that already happened once on a major scale in the 1950s. 4 The larger 
problem we recognize today, it seems to me, is the closeness of various 
forms of modernism in its own time to the mindset of modernization, 
whether in its capitalist or communist version. Of course, modernism was 
never a monolithic phenomenon, and it contained both the modernization 
euphoria of futurism, constructivism and Neue Sachlichkeit and some of 



Mapping the Postmodern / 239 


the starkest critiques of modernization in the various modem forms of 
“romantic anti-capitalism.” 5 The problem I address in this essay is not 
what modernism really was , but rather how it was perceived retrospec¬ 
tively, what dominant values and knowledge it carried, and how it func¬ 
tioned ideologically and culturally after World War II. It is a specific 
image of modernism that has become the bone of contention for the post¬ 
modems, and that image has to be reconstructed if we want to understand 
postmodernism’s problematic relationship to the modernist tradition and 
its claims to difference. 

Architecture gives us the most palpable example of the issues at stake. 
The modernist utopia embodied in the building programs of the Bauhaus, 
of Mies, Gropius and Le Corbusier, was part of a heroic attempt after the 
Great War and the Russian Revolution to rebuild a war-ravaged Europe 
in the image of the new, and to make building a vital part of the envisioned 
renewal of society. A new Enlightenment demanded rational design for a 
rational society, but the new rationality was overlayed with a utopian 
fervor which ultimately made it veer back into myth—the myth of modern¬ 
ization. Ruthless denial of the past was as much an essential component 
of the modem movement as its call for modernization through standardiza¬ 
tion and rationalization. It is well-known how the modernist utopia ship¬ 
wrecked on its own internal contradictions and, more importantly, on 
politics and history. 6 Gropius, Mies and others were forced into exile, 
Albert Speer took their place in Germany. After 1945, modernist architec¬ 
ture was largely deprived of its social vision and became increasingly an 
architecture of power and representation. Rather than standing as harbin¬ 
gers and promises of the new life, modernist housing projects became 
symbols of alienation and dehumanization, a fate they shared with the 
assembly line, that other agent of the new which had been greeted with 
exuberant enthusiasm in the 1920s by Leninists and Fordists alike. 

Charles Jencks, one of the most well-known popularizing chroniclers 
of the agony of the modem movement and spokesman for a postmodern 
architecture, dates modem architecture’s symbolic demise July 15, 1972, 
at 3:32 p.m. At that time several slab blocks of St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe 
Housing (built by Minoru Yamasaki in the 1950s) were dynamited, and 
the collapse was dramatically displayed on the evening news. The modem 
machine for living, as Le Corbusier had called it with the technological 
euphoria so typical of the 1920s, had become unlivable, the modernist 
experiment, so it seemed, obsolete. Jencks takes pains to distinguish the 
initial vision of the modem movement from the sins committed in its name 
later on. And yet, on balance he agrees with those who, since the 1960s, 
have argued against modernism’s hidden dependence on the machine 
metaphor and the production paradigm, and against its taking the factory 
as the primary model for all buildings. It has become commonplace in 



240 / Andreas Huyssen 


postmodernist circles to favor a reintroduction of multivalent symbolic 
dimensions into architecture, a mixing of codes, an appropriation of local 
vernaculars and regional traditions. 7 Thus Jencks suggests that architects 
look two ways simultaneously, “towards the traditional slow-changing 
codes and particular ethnic meanings of a neighborhood, and towards the 
fast-changing codes of architectural fashion and professionalism.” 8 Such 
schizophrenia, Jencks holds, is symptomatic of the postmodern moment 
in architecture; and one might well ask whether it does not apply to 
contemporary culture at large, which increasingly seems to privilege 
what Bloch called Ungleichzeitigkeiten (non-synchronisms), 9 rather than 
favoring only what Adorno, the theorist of modernism par excellence, 
described as der fortgeschrittenste Materialstand der Kunst (the most 
advanced state of artistic material). Where such postmodern schizophrenia 
is creative tension resulting in ambitious and successful buildings, and 
where, conversely, it veers off into an incoherent and arbitrary shuffling 
of styles, will remain a matter of debate. We should also not forget that 
the mixing of codes, the appropriation of regional traditions and the 
uses of symbolic dimensions other than the machine were never entirely 
unknown to the architects of the International Style. In order to arrive at 
his postmodernism, Jencks ironically had to exacerbate the very view of 
modernist architecture which he persistently attacks. 

One of the most telling documents of the break of postmodernism with 
the modernist dogma is a book coauthored by Robert Venturi, Denise 
Scott-Brown and Steven Izenour and entitled Learning from Las Vegas. 
Rereading this book and earlier writings by Venturi from the 1960s today, 10 
one is struck by the proximity of Venturi’s strategies and solutions to the 
pop sensibility of those years. Time and again the authors use pop art’s 
break with the austere canon of high modernist painting and pop’s uncriti¬ 
cal espousal of the commercial vernacular of consumer culture as an 
inspiration for their work. What Madison Avenue was for Andy Warhol, 
what the comics and the Western were for Leslie Fiedler, the landscape 
of Las Vegas was for Venturi and his group. The rhetoric of Learning 
from Las Vegas is predicated on the glorification of the billboard strip and 
of the ruthless shlock of casino culture. In Kenneth Frampton’s ironic 
words, it offers a reading of Las Vegas as “an authentic outburst of popular 
phantasy.”" I think it would be gratuitous to ridicule such odd notions of 
cultural populism today. While there is something patently absurd about 
such propositions, we have to acknowledge the power they mustered to 
explode the reified dogmas of modernism and to reopen a set of questions 
which the modernism gospel of the 1940s and 1950s had largely blocked 
from view: questions of ornament and metaphor in architecture, of figura¬ 
tion and realism in painting, of story and representation in literature, of 
the body in music and theater. Pop in the broadest sense was the context 



Mapping the Postmodern / 241 


in which a notion of the postmodern first took shape, and from the 
beginning until today, the most significant trends within postmodernism 
have challenged modernism’s relentless hostility to mass culture. 

Postmodernism in the 1960s: An American Avantgarde? 

I will now suggest a historical distinction between the postmodernism 
of the 1960s and that of the 1970s and early 1980s. My argument will 
roughly be this: 1960s’ and 1970s’ postmodernism both rejected or criti¬ 
cized a certain version of modernism. Against the codified high modernism 
of the preceding decades, the postmodernism of the 1960s tried to revital¬ 
ize the heritage of the European avantgarde and to give it an American 
form along what one could call in short-hand the Duchamp-Cage-Warhol 
axis. By the 1970s, this avantgardist postmodernism of the 1960s had 
in turn exhausted its potential, even though some of its manifestations 
continued well into the new decade. What was new in the 1970s was, on the 
one hand, the emergence of a culture of eclecticism, a largely affirmative 
postmodernism which had abandoned any claim to critique, transgression 
or negation; and, on the other hand, an alternative postmodernism in 
which resistance, critique and negation of the status quo were redefined 
in non-modernist and non-avantgardist terms, terms which match the 
political developments in contemporary culture more effectively than the 
older theories of modernism. Let me elaborate. 

What were the connotations of the term postmodernism in the 1960s? 
Roughly since the mid-1950s literature and the arts witnessed a rebellion 
of a new generation of artists such as Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, 
Kerouac, Ginsberg and the Beats, Burroughs and Barthelme against the 
dominance of abstract expressionism, serial music and classical literary 
modernism. 12 The rebellion of the artists was soon joined by critics such 
as Susan Sontag, Leslie Fiedler and Ihab Hassan who all vigorously though 
in very different ways and to a different degree, argued for the postmodern. 
Sontag advocated camp and a new sensibility, Fiedler sang the praise of 
popular literature and genital enlightenment, and Hassan—closer than the 
others to the modems—advocated a literature of silence, trying to mediate 
between the “tradition of the new” and post-war literary developments. 
By that time, modernism had of course been safely established as the 
canon in the academy, the museums and the gallery network. In that canon 
the New York School of abstract expressionism represented the epitome 
of that long trajectory of the modem which had begun in Paris in the 1850s 
and 1860s and which had inexorably led to New York—the American 
victory in culture following on the heels of the victory on the battlefields 
of World War II. By the 1960s artists and critics alike shared a sense of 
a fundamentally new situation. The assumed postmodern rupture with the 



242 / Andreas Huyssen 


past was felt as a loss: art and literature’s claims to truth and human value 
seemed exhausted, the belief in the constitutive power of the modem 
imagination just another delusion. Or it was felt as a breakthrough toward 
an ultimate liberation of instinct and consciousness, into the global village 
of McLuhanacy, the new Eden of polymorphous perversity, Paradise 
Now, as the Living Theater proclaimed it on stage. Thus critics of post¬ 
modernism such as Gerald Graff have correctly identified two strains of 
the postmodern culture of the 1960s: the apocalyptic desperate strain and 
the visionary celebratory strain, both of which, Graff claims, already 
existed within modernism. 13 While this is certainly true, it misses an 
important point. The ire of the postmodernists was directed not so much 
against modernism as such, but rather against a certain austere image of 
’high modernism,’ as advanced by the New Critics and other custodians 
of modernist culture. Such a view, which avoids the false dichotomy of 
choosing either continuity or discontinuity, is supported by a retrospective 
essay by John Barth. In a 1980 piece in The Atlantic, entitled “The 
Literature of Replenishment,” Barth criticizes his own 1968 essay “The 
Literature of Exhaustion,” which seemed at the time to offer an adequate 
summary of the apocalyptic strain. Barth now suggests that what his earlier 
piece was really about “was the effective ‘exhaustion’ not of language or 
of literature but of the aesthetic of high modernism.” 14 And he goes on to 
describe Beckett’s Stories and Texts for Nothing and Nabokov’s Pale Fire 
as late modernist marvels, distinct from such postmodernist writers as 
Italo Calvino and Gabriel Marquez. Cultural critics like Daniel Bell, on 
the other hand, would simply claim that the postmodernism of the 1960s 
was the “logical culmination of modernist intentions,” 15 a view which 
rephrases Lionel Trilling’s despairing observation that the demonstrators 
of the 1960s were practicing modernism in the streets. But my point here 
is precisely that high modernism had never seen fit to be in the streets in 
the first place, that its earlier undeniably adversary role was superseded 
in the 1960s by a very different culture of confrontation in the streets and 
in art works, and that this culture of confrontation transformed inherited 
ideological notions of style, form and creativity, artistic autonomy and 
the imagination to which modernism had by then succumbed. Critics like 
Bell and Graff saw the rebellion of the late 1950s and the 1960s as 
continuous with modernism’s earlier nihilistic and anarchic strain; rather 
than seeing it as a postmodernist revolt against classical modernism, they 
interpreted it as a profusion of modernist impulses into everyday life. And 
in some sense they were absolutely right, except that this “success” of 
modernism fundamentally altered the terms of how modernist culture was 
to be perceived. Again, my argument here is that the revolt of the 1960s 
was never a rejection of modernism per se, but rather a revolt against that 
version of modernism which had been domesticated in the 1950s, become 



Mapping the Postmodern / 243 


part of the liberal-conservative consensus of the times, and which had 
even been turned into a propaganda weapon in the cultural-political arsenal 
of Cold War anti-communism. The modernism against which artists re¬ 
belled was no longer felt to be an adversary culture. It no longer opposed a 
dominant class and its world view, nor had it maintained its programmatic 
purity from contamination by the culture industry. In other words, the 
revolt sprang precisely from the success of modernism, from the fact that 
in the United States, as in West Germany and France, for that matter, 
modernism had been perverted into a form of affirmative culture. 

I would go on to argue that the global view which sees the 1960s as 
part of the modem movement extending from Manet and Baudelaire, if not 
from romanticism, to the present is not able to account for the specifically 
American character of postmodernism. After all, the term accrued its 
emphatic connotations in the United States, not in Europe. I would even 
claim that it could not have been invented in Europe at the time. For a 
variety of reasons, it would not have made any sense there. West Germany 
was still busy rediscovering its own modems who had been burnt and 
banned during the Third Reich. If anything, the 1960s in West Germany 
produced a major shift in evaluation and interest from one set of modems 
to another: from Benn, Kafka and Thomas Mann to Brecht, the left 
expressionists and the political writers of the 1920s, from Heidegger and 
Jaspers to Adorno and Benjamin, from Schonberg and Webern to Eisler, 
from Kirchner and Beckmann to Grosz and Heartfield. It was a search for 
alternative cultural traditions within modernity and as such directed against 
the politics of a depoliticized version of modernism, which had come to 
provide much needed cultural legitimation for the Adenauer restoration. 
During the 1950s, the myths of “the golden twenties,” the “conservative 
revolution,” and universal existentialist Angst , all helped block out and 
suppress the realities of the fascist past. From the depths of barbarism and 
the rubble of its cities, West Germany was trying to reclaim a civilized 
modernity and to find a cultural identity tuned to international modernism 
which would make others forget Germany’s past as predator and pariah 
of the modem world. Given this context, neither the variations on modern¬ 
ism of the 1950s nor the struggle of the 1960s for alternative democratic 
and socialist cultural traditions could have possibly been construed as 
postmodern. The very notion of postmodernism has emerged in Germany 
only since the late 1970s and then not in relation to the culture of the 
1960s, but narrowly in relation to recent architectural developments and, 
perhaps more importantly, in the context of the new social movements 
and their radical critique of modernity. 16 

In France, too, the 1960s witnessed a return to modernism rather than 
a step beyond it, even though for different reasons than in Germany, some 
of which I will discuss in the later section on poststructuralism. In the 



244 / Andreas Huyssen 


context of French intellectual life, the term postmodernism was simply 
not around in the 1960s, and even today it does not seem to imply a major 
break with modernism as it does in the U.S. 

I would now like to sketch four major characteristics of the early phase 
of postmodernism which all point to postmodernism’s continuity with the 
international tradition of the modem, yes, but which—and this is my 
point—also establish American postmodernism as a movement sui ge¬ 
neris.' 1 

First, the postmodernism of the 1960s was characterized by a temporal 
imagination which displayed a powerful sense of the future and of new 
frontiers, of rupture and discontinuity, of crisis and generational conflict, 
an imagination reminiscent of earlier continental avantgarde movements 
such as Dada and surrealism rather than of high modernism. Thus the 
revival of Marcel Duchamp as godfather of 1960s postmodernism is no 
historical accident. And yet, the historical constellation in which the 
postmodernism of the 1960s played itself out (from the Bay of Pigs and 
the civil rights movement to the campus revolts, the anti-war movements 
and the counter-culture) makes this avantgarde specifically American, 
even where its vocabulary of aesthetic form and techniques was not 
radically new. 

Secondly, the early phase of postmodernism included an iconoclastic 
attack on what Peter Burger has tried to capture theoretically as the 
“institution art.” By that term Burger refers first and foremost to the ways 
in which art’s role in society is perceived and defined, and, secondly, to 
ways in which art is produced, marketed, distributed and consumed. In 
his book Theory of the Avantgarde Burger has argued that the major 
goal of the historical European avantgarde (Dada, early surrealism, the 
postrevolutionary Russian avantgarde 18 ) was to undermine, attack and 
transform the bourgeois institution art and its ideology of autonomy rather 
than only changing artistic and literary modes of representation. Burger’s 
approach to the question of art as institution in bourgeois society goes a 
long way toward suggesting useful distinctions between modernism and 
the avantgarde, distinctions which in turn can help us place the American 
avantgarde of the 1960s. In Burgers account the European avantgarde was 
primarily an attack on the highness of high art and on art’s separateness 
from everyday life as it had evolved in nineteenth-century aestheticism 
and its repudiation of realism. Burger argues that the avantgarde attempted 
to reintegrate art and life or, to use his Hegelian-Marxist formula, to 
sublate art into life, and he sees this reintegration attempt, I think correctly, 
as a major break with the aestheticist tradition of the later nineteenth 
century. The value of Burger’s account for contemporary American de¬ 
bates is that it permits us to distinguish different stages and different 
projects within the trajectory of the modem. The usual equation of the 



Mapping the Postmodern / 245 


avantgarde with modernism can indeed no longer be maintained. Contrary 
to the avantgarde’s intention to merge art and life, modernism always 
remained bound up with the more traditional notion of the autonomous 
art work, with the construction of form and meaning (however estranged 
or ambiguous, displaced or undecidable such meaning might be), and with 
the specialized status of the aesthetic. 10 The politically important point of 
Burger’s account for my argument about the 1960s is this: The historical 
avantgarde’s iconoclastic attack on cultural institutions and on traditional 
modes of representation presupposed a society in which high art played 
an essential role in legitimizing hegemony, or, to put it in more neutral 
terms, to support a cultural establishment and its claims to aesthetic 
knowledge. It had been the achievement of the historical avantgarde to 
demystify and to undermine the legitimizing discourse of high art in 
European society. The various modernisms of this century, on the other 
hand, have either maintained or restored versions of high culture, a task 
which was certainly facilitated by the ultimate and perhaps unavoidable 
failure of the historical avantgarde to reintegrate art and life. And yet, I 
would suggest that it was this specific radicalism of the avantgarde, 
directed against the institutionalization of high art as a discourse of hegem¬ 
ony, that recommended itself as a source of energy and inspiration to 
the American postmodernists of the 1960s. Perhaps for the first time in 
American culture an avantgardist revolt against a tradition of high art and 
what was perceived as its hegemonic role made political sense. High art 
had indeed become institutionalized in the burgeoning museum, gallery, 
concert, record and paperback culture of the 1950s. Modernism itself had 
entered the mainstream via mass reproduction and the culture industry. 
And during the Kennedy years, high culture even began to take on func¬ 
tions of political representation with Robert Frost and Pablo Casals, Mal- 
raux and Stravinsky at the White House. The irony in all of this is that 
the first time the U.S. had something resembling an “institution art” in 
the emphatic European sense, it was modernism itself, the kind of art 
whose purpose had always been to resist institutionalization. In the form 
of happenings, pop vernacular, psychedelic art, acid rock, alternative and 
street theater, the postmodernism of the 1960s was groping to recapture 
the adversary ethos which had nourished modem art in its earlier stages, 
but which it seemed no longer able to sustain. Of course, the “success” 
of the pop avantgarde, which itself had sprung full-blown from advertising 
in the first place, immediately made it profitable and thus sucked it 
into a more highly developed culture industry than the earlier European 
avantgarde ever had to contend with. But despite such cooption through 
commodification the pop avantgarde retained a certain cutting edge in its 
proximity to the 1960s culture of confrontation. 20 No matter how deluded 
about its potential effectiveness, the attack on the institution art was always 



246 / Andreas Huyssen 


also an attack on hegemonic social institutions, and the raging battles of 
the 1960s over whether or not pop was legitimate art prove the point. 

Thirdly, many of the early advocates of postmodernism shared the 
technological optimism of segments of the 1920s avantgarde. What pho¬ 
tography and film had been to Vertov and Tretyakov, Brecht, Heartfield 
and Benjamin in that period, television, video and the computer were 
for the prophets of a technological aesthetic in the 1960s. McLuhan’s 
cybernetic and technocratic media eschatology and Hassan’s praise for 
“runaway technology,” the “boundless dispersal by media,” “the computer 
as substitute consciousness”—all of this combined easily with euphoric 
visions of a postindustrial society. Even if compared to the equally exuber¬ 
ant technological optimism of the 1920s, it is striking to see in retrospect 
how uncritically media technology and the cybernetic paradigm were 
espoused in the 1960s by conservatives, liberals and leftists alike. 21 

The enthusiasm for the new media leads me to the fourth trend within 
early postmodernism. There emerged a vigorous, though again largely 
uncritical attempt to validate popular culture as a challenge to the canon 
of high art, modernist or traditional. This “populist” trend of the 1960s 
with its celebration of rock ’n roll and folk music, of the imagery of 
everyday life and of the multiple forms of popular literature gained much 
of its energy in the context of the counter-culture and by a next to total 
abandonment of an earlier American tradition of a critique of modem mass 
culture. Leslie Fiedler’s incantation of the prefix “post” in his essay “The 
New Mutants” had an exhilarating effect at the time. 22 The postmodern 
harbored the promise of a “post-white,” “post-male,” “post-humanist,” 
“post-Puritan” world. It is easy to see how all of Fielder’s adjectives aim 
at the modernist dogma and at the cultural establishment’s notion of what 
Western Civilization was all about. Susan Sontag’s camp aesthetic did 
much the same. Even though it was less populist, it certainly was as hostile 
to high modernism. There is a curious contradiction in all this. Fiedler’s 
populism reiterates precisely that adversarial relationship between high 
art and mass culture which, in the accounts of Clement Greenberg and 
Theodor W. Adorno, was one of the pillars of the modernist dogma Fiedler 
had set out to undermine. Fiedler just takes his position on the other shore, 
opposite Greenberg and Adorno, as it were, validating the popular and 
pounding away at “elitism.” And yet, Fiedler’s call to cross the border 
and close the gap between high art and mass culture as well as his implied 
political critique of what later came to be called “eurocentrism” and 
“logocentrism” can serve as an important marker for subsequent develop¬ 
ments within postmodernism. A new creative relationship between high 
art and certain forms of mass culture is, to my mind, indeed one of the 
major marks of difference between high modernism and the art and litera¬ 
ture which followed it in the 1970s and 1980s both in Europe and the 



Mapping the Postmodern / 247 


United States. And it is precisely the recent self-assertion of minority 
cultures and their emergence into public consciousness which has under¬ 
mined the modernist belief that high and low culture have to be categori¬ 
cally kept apart; such rigorous segregation simply does not make much 
sense within a given minority culture which has always existed outside in 
the shadow of the dominant high culture. 

In conclusion, I would say that from an American perspective the 
postmodernism of the 1960s had some of the makings of a genuine 
avantgarde movement, even if the overall political situation of 1960s’ 
America was in no way comparable to that of Berlin or Moscow in the early 
1920s when the tenuous and short-lived alliance between avantgardism and 
vanguard politics was forged. For a number of historical reasons the ethos 
of artistic avantgardism as iconoclasm, as probing reflection upon the 
ontological status of art in modem society, as an attempt to forge another 
life was culturally not yet as exhausted in the U.S. of the 1960s as it was 
in Europe at the same time. From a European perspective, therefore, it all 
looked like the endgame of the historical avantgarde rather than like the 
breakthrough to new frontiers it claimed to be. My point here is that 
American postmodernism of the 1960s was both: an American avantgarde 
and the endgame of international avantgardism. And I would go on to 
argue that it is indeed important for the cultural historian to analyze such 
Ungleichzeitigkeiten within modernity and to relate them to the very 
specific constellations and contexts of national and regional cultures and 
histories. The view that the culture of modernity is essentially internation¬ 
alist—with its cutting edge moving in space and time from Paris in the 
later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to Moscow and Berlin in the 
1920s and to New York in the 1940s—is a view tied to a teleology of 
modem art whose unspoken subtext is the ideology of modernization. It is 
precisely this teleology and ideology of modernization which has become 
increasingly problematic in our postmodern age, problematic not so much 
perhaps in its descriptive powers relating to past events, but certainly in 
its normative claims. 

Postmodernism in the 1970s and 1980s 

In some sense, I might argue that what I have mapped so far is really 
the prehistory of the postmodern. After all, the term postmodernism only 
gained wide currency in the 1970s while much of the language used to 
describe the art, architecture and literature of the 1960s was still derived— 
and plausibly so—from the rhetoric of avantgardism and from what I have 
called the ideology of modernization. The cultural developments of the 
1970s, however, are sufficiently different to warrant a separate descrip¬ 
tion. One of the major differences, indeed, seems to be that the rhetoric 



248 / Andreas Huyssen 


of avantgardism has faded fast in the 1970s so that one can speak perhaps 
only now of a genuinely post-modern and post-avantgarde culture. Even 
if, with the benefit of hindsight, future historians of culture were to opt 
for such a usage of the term, I would still argue that the adversary and 
critical element in the notion of postmodernism can only be fully grasped 
if one takes the late 1950s as the starting point of a mapping of the 
postmodern. If we were to focus only on the 1970s, the adversary moment 
of the postmodern would be much harder to work out precisely because 
of the shift within the trajectory of postmodernism that lies somewhere in 
the fault lines between “the ’60s” and “the ’70s.” 

By the mid-1970s, certain basic assumptions of the preceding decade 
had either vanished or been transformed. The sense of a “futurist revolt” 
(Fiedler) was gone. The iconoclastic gestures of the pop, rock and sex 
avantgardes seemed exhausted since their increasingly commercialized 
circulation had deprived them of their avantgardist status. The earlier 
optimism about technology, media and popular culture had given way to 
more sober and critical assessments: television as pollution rather than 
panacea. In the years of Watergate and the drawn-out agony of the Vietnam 
war, of the oil-shock and the dire predictions of the Club of Rome, it was 
indeed difficult to maintain the confidence and exuberance of the 1960s. 
Counter-culture, New Left and anti-war movement were ever more fre¬ 
quently denounced as infantile aberrations of American history. It was 
easy to see that the 1960s were over. But it is more difficult to describe 
the emerging cultural scene which seemed much more amorphous and 
scattered than that of the 1960s. One might begin by saying that the battle 
against the normative pressures of high modernism waged during the 
1960s had been successful—too successful, some would argue. While the 
1960s could still be discussed in terms of a logical sequence of styles 
(Pop, Op, Kinetic,Minimal, Concept) or in equally modernist terms of art 
versus anti-art and non-art, such distinctions have increasingly lost ground 
in the 1970s. 

The situation in the 1970s seems to be characterized rather by an ever 
wider dispersal and dissemination of artistic practices all working out of 
the ruins of the modernist edifice, raiding it for ideas, plundering its 
vocabulary and supplementing it with randomly chosen images and motifs 
from pre-modem and non-modem cultures as well as from contemporary 
mass culture. Modernist styles have actually not been abolished, but, as 
one art critic recently observed, continue “to enjoy a kind of half-life in 
mass culture,” 23 for instance in advertising, record cover design, furniture 
and household items, science fiction illustration, window displays, etc. 
Yet another way of putting it would be to say that all modernist and 
avantgardist techniques, forms and images are now stored for instant recall 
in the computerized memory banks of our culture. But the same memory 



Mapping the Postmodern / 249 


also stores all of pre-modernist art as well as the genres, codes and image 
worlds of popular cultures and modem mass culture. How precisely these 
enormously expanded capacities for information storage, processing and 
recall have affected artists and their work remains to be analyzed. But one 
thing seems clear: the great divide that separated high modernism from 
mass culture and that was codified in the various classical accounts of 
modernism no longer seems relevant to postmodern artistic or critical 
sensibilities. 

Since the categorical demand for the uncompromising segregation of 
high and low has lost much of its persuasive power, we may be in a 
better position now to understand the political pressures and historical 
contingencies which shaped such accounts in the first place. I would 
suggest that the primary place of what I am calling the great divide was 
the age of Stalin and Hitler when the threat of totalitarian control over all 
culture forged a variety of defensive strategies meant to protect high 
culture in general, not just modernism. Thus conservative culture critics 
such as Ortega Y Gasset argued that high culture needed to be protected 
from the “revolt of the masses.” Left critics like Adorno insisted that 
genuine art resist its incorporation into the capitalist culture industry which 
he defined as the total administration of culture from above. And even 
Lukacs, the left critic of modernism par excellence , developed his theory 
of high bourgeois realism not in unison with but in antagonism to the 
Zhdanovist dogma of socialist realism and its deadly practice of cen¬ 
sorship. 

It is surely no coincidence that the Western codification of modernism 
as canon of the twentieth century took place during the 1940s and 1950s, 
preceding and during the Cold War. I am not reducing the great modernist 
works, by way of a simple ideology critique of their function, to a ploy 
in the cultural strategies of the Cold War. What I am suggesting, however, 
is that the age of Hitler, Stalin and the Cold War produced specific accounts 
of modernism, such as those of Clement Greenberg and Adorno, 24 whose 
aesthetic categories cannot be totally divorced from the pressures of that 
era. And it is in this sense, I would argue, that the logic of modernism 
advocated by those critics has become an aesthetic dead end to the extent 
that it has been upheld as rigid guideline for further artistic profusion and 
critical evaluation. As against such dogma, the postmodern has indeed 
opened up new directions and new visions. As the confrontation between 
“bad” socialist realism and the “good” art of the free world began to lose 
its ideological momentum in an age of detente, the whole relationship 
between modernism and mass culture as well as the problem of realism 
could be reassessed in less reified terms. While the issue was already 
raised in the 1960s, e.g., in pop art and various forms of documentary 
literature, it was only in the 1970s that artists increasingly drew on popular 



250 / Andreas Huyssen 


or mass cultural forms and genres, overlaying them with modernist and/ 
or avantgardist strategies. A major body of work representing this tendency 
is the New German Cinema, and here especially the firms of Rainer 
Werner Fassbinder, whose success in the United States can be explained 
precisely in those terms. It is also no coincidence that the diversity of 
mass culture was now recognized and analyzed by critics who increasingly 
began to work themselves out from under the modernist dogma that all 
mass culture is monolithic Kitsch, psychologically regressive and mind- 
destroying. The possibilities for experimental meshing and mixing of mass 
culture and modernism seemed promising and produced some of the most 
successful and ambitious art and literature of the 1970s. Needless to say, 
it also produced aesthetic failures and fiascos, but then modernism itself 
did not only produce masterworks. 

It was especially the art, writing, film making and criticism of women 
and minority artists with their recuperation of buried and mutilated tradi¬ 
tions, their emphasis on exploring forms of gender- and race-based subjec¬ 
tivity in aesthetic productions and experiences, and their refusal to be 
limited to standard canonizations, which added a whole new dimension 
to the critique of high modernism and to the emergence of alternative 
forms of culture. Thus, we have come to see modernism’s imaginary 
relationship to African and Oriental art as deeply problematic, and will 
approach, say, contemporary Latin American writers other than by prais¬ 
ing them for being good modernists, who, naturally, learned their craft in 
Paris. Women’s criticism has shed some new light on the modernist 
canon itself from a variety of different feminist perspectives. Without 
succumbing to the kind of feminine essentialism which is one of the more 
problematic sides of the feminist enterprise, it just seems obvious that were 
it not for the critical gaze of feminist criticism, the male determinations and 
obsessions of Italian futurism, Vorticism, Russian constructivism, Neue 
Sachlichkeit or surrealism would probably still be blocked from our view; 
and the writings of Marie Luise Fleisser and Ingeborg Bachmann, the 
paintings of Frida Kahlo would still be known only to a handful of 
specialists. Of course such new insights can be interpreted in multiple 
ways, and the debate about gender and sexuality, male and female author¬ 
ship and reader/spectatorship in literature and the arts is far from over, its 
implications for a new image of modernism not yet fully elaborated. 

In light of these developments it is somewhat baffling that feminist 
criticism has so far largely stayed away from the postmodernism debate 
which is considered not to be pertinent to feminist concerns. The fact 
that to date only male critics have addressed the problem of modernity/ 
postmodemity, however, does not mean that it does not concern women. 
I would argue—and here I am in full agreement with Craig Owens 25 — 
that women’s art, literature and criticism are an important part of the 



Mapping the Postmodern / 251 


postmodern culture of the 1970s and 1980s and indeed a measure of 
the vitality and energy of that culture. Actually, the suspicion is in 
order that the conservative turn of these past years has indeed something 
to do with the sociologically significant emergence of various forms of 
“otherness” in the cultural sphere, all of which are perceived as a threat 
to the stability and sanctity of canon and tradition. Current attempts to 
restore a 1950s version of high modernism for the 1980s certainly point 
in that direction. And it is in this context that the question of 
neo-conservatism becomes politically central to the debate about the 
postmodern. 

Habermas and the Question of Neo-Conservatism 

Both in Europe and the U.S., the waning of the 1960s was accompanied 
by the rise of neo-conservatism and soon enough there emerged a new 
constellation characterized by the terms postmodernism and neo-conserva¬ 
tism. Even though their relationship was never fully elaborated, the Left 
took them to be compatible with each other or even identical, arguing that 
postmodernism was the kind of affirmative art that could happily coexist 
with political and cultural neo-conservatism. Until very recently, the 
question of the postmodern was simply not taken seriously on the Left, 26 
not to speak of those traditionalists in the academy or the museum for 
whom there is still nothing new and worthwhile under the sun since the 
advent of modernism. The Left’s ridiculing of postmodernism was of a 
piece with its often haughty and dogmatic critique of the counter-cultural 
impulses of the 1960s. During much of the 1970s, after all, the thrashing 
of the 1960s was as much a pastime of the Left as it was the gospel 
according to Daniel Bell. 

Now, there is no doubt that much of what went under the label of 
postmodernism in the 1970s is indeed affirmative, not critical, in nature, 
and often, especially in literature, remarkably similar to tendencies of 
modernism which it so vocally repudiates. But not all of it is simply 
affirmative, and the wholesale writing off of postmodernism as a symptom 
of capitalist culture in decline is reductive, unhistorical and all too reminis¬ 
cent of Lukacs’ attacks on modernism in the 1930s. Can one really make 
such clear-cut distinctions as to uphold modernism, today, as the only 
valid form of twentieth-century “realism”, 27 an art that is adequate to the 
condition moderne, while simultaneously reserving all the old epitheta— 
inferior, decadent, pathological—to postmodernism? And isn’t it ironic 
that many of the same critics who will insist on this distinction are the 
first ones to declare emphatically that modernism already had it all and 
that there is really nothing new in postmodernism. . . 

I would instead argue that in order not to become the Lukacs of the 



252 / Andreas Huyssen 


postmodern by opposing, today, a “good” modernism to a “bad” postmod¬ 
ernism, we try to salvage the postmodern from its assumed total collusion 
with neo-conservatism wherever possible; and that we explore the question 
whether postmodernism might not harbor productive contradictions, per¬ 
haps even a critical and oppositional potential. If the postmodern is indeed 
a historical and cultural condition (however transitional or incipient), 
then oppositional culture practices and strategies must be located within 
postmodernism, not necessarily in its gleaming facades, to be sure, but 
neither in some outside ghetto of a properly ‘progressive’ or a correctly 
‘aesthetic’ art. Just as Marx analyzed the culture of modernity dialectically 
as bringing both progress and destruction, 28 the culture of postmodemity, 
too, must be grasped in its gains as well as in its losses, in its promises 
as well as in its deprivations; and yet, it may be precisely one of the 
characteristics of the postmodern that the relationship between progress 
and destruction of cultural forms between tradition and modernity can no 
longer be understood today the same way Marx understood it at the dawn 
of modernist culture. 

It was, of course, Jurgen Habermas’ intervention which, for the first 
time, raised the question of postmodernism’s relationship to neo-conserva¬ 
tism in a theoretically and historically complex way. Ironically, however, 
the effect of Habermas’ argument, which identified the postmodern with 
various forms of conservatism, was to reinforce leftist cultural stereotypes 
rather than challenge them. In his 1980 Adorno-prize lecture, 29 which has 
become a focal point for the debate, Habermas criticized both conservatism 
(old, neo and young) and postmodernism for not coming to terms either 
with the exigencies of culture in late capitalism or with the successes and 
failures of modernism itself. Significantly, Habermas’ notion of moder¬ 
nity—the modernity he wishes to see continued and completed—is purged 
of modernism’s nihilistic and anarchic strain just as his opponents’, e.g., 
Lyotard’s, 30 notion of an aesthetic (post)modemism is determined to liqui¬ 
date any trace of the enlightened modernity inherited from the 18th century 
which provides the basis for Habermas’ notion of modem culture. Rather 
than rehearsing the theoretical differences between Habermas and Lyotard 
one more time—a task which Martin Jay has performed admirably in a 
recent article on “Habermas and Modernism” '—I want to point to the 
German context of Habermas’ reflections which is too readily forgotten 
in American debates, since Habermas himself refers to it only marginally. 

Habermas’ attack on postmodern conservatisms took place on the heels 
of the political Tendenzwende of the mid-1970s, the conservative backlash 
which has affected several Western countries. He could cite an analysis 
of American neo-conservatism without even having to belabor the point 
that the neo-conservative strategies to regain cultural hegemony and to 
wipe out the effect of the 1960s in political and cultural life are very 



Mapping the Postmodern / 253 


similar in the FRG. But the national contingencies of Habermas’ argument 
are at least as important. He was writing at the tail end of a major thrust 
of modernization of German cultural and political life which seemed to 
have gone awry sometime during the 1970s, producing high levels of 
disillusionment both with the utopian hopes and the pragmatic promises 
of 1968/69. Against the growing cynicism, which has since then been 
brilliantly diagnosed and criticized in Peter Sloterdijk’s Kritik der zyni- 
schen Vernunft as a form of “enlightened false consciousness,” 32 Habermas 
tries to salvage the emancipatory potential of enlightened reason which to 
him is the sine qua non of political democracy. Habermas defends a 
substantive notion of communicative rationality, especially against those 
who will collapse reason with domination, believing that by abandoning 
reason they free themselves from domination. Of course Habermas’ whole 
project of a critical social theory revolves around a defense of enlightened 
modernity, which is not identical with the aesthetic modernism of literary 
critics and art historians. It is directed simultaneously against political 
conservatism (neo or old) and against what he perceives, not unlike 
Adorno, as the cultural irrationality of a post-Nietzschean aestheticism 
embodied in surrealism and subsequently in much of contemporary French 
theory. The defense of enlightenment in Germany is and remains an 
attempt to fend off the reaction from the Right. 

During the 1970s, Habermas could observe how German art and litera¬ 
ture abandoned the explicit political commitments of the 1960s, a decade 
often described in Germany as a “second enlightenment”; how autobiogra¬ 
phy and Erfahrungstexte replaced the documentary experiments in prose 
and drama of the preceding decade; how political poetry and art made 
way for a new subjectivity, a new romanticism, a new mythology; how 
a new generation of students and young intellectuals became increasingly 
weary of theory, left politics and social science, preferring instead to flock 
toward the revelations of ethnology and myth. Even though Habermas 
does not address the art and literature of the 1970s directly—with the 
exception of the late work of Peter Weiss, which is itself an exception— 
it seems not too much to assume that he interpreted this cultural shift in 
light of the political Tendenzwende. Perhaps his labelling of Foucault and 
Derrida as young conservatives is as much a response to German cultural 
developments as it is to the French theorists themselves. Such a speculation 
may draw plausibility from the fact that since the late 1970s certain forms 
of French theory have been quite influential, especially in the subcultures 
of Berlin and Frankfurt, among those of the younger generation who have 
turned away from critical theory made in Germany. 

It would be only a small step, then, for Habermas to conclude that a 
post-modern, post-avantgarde art indeed fits in all too smoothly with 
various forms of conservatism, and is predicated on abandoning the eman- 



254 / Andreas Huyssen 


cipatory project of modernity. But to me, there remains the question of 
whether these aspects of the 1970s—despite their occasionally high levels 
of self-indulgence, narcissism and false immediacy—do not also represent 
a deepening and a constructive displacement of the emancipatory impulses 
of the 1960s. But one does not have to share Habermas’ positions on 
modernity and modernism to see that he did indeed raise the most important 
issues at stake in a form that avoided the usual apologies and facile 
polemics about modernity and postmodemity. 

His questions were these: How does postmodernism relate to modern¬ 
ism? How are political conservatism, cultural eclecticism or pluralism, 
tradition, modernity and anti-modernity interrelated in contemporary 
Western culture? To what extent can the cultural and social formation of 
the 1970s be characterized as postmodern? And, further, to what extent 
is postmodernism a revolt against reason and enlightenment, and at what 
point do such revolts become reactionary—a question heavily loaded 
with the weight of recent German history? In comparison, the standard 
American accounts of postmodernism too often remain entirely tied to 
questions of aesthetic style or poetics; the occasional nod toward theories 
of a postindustrial society is usually intended as a reminder that any form 
of Marxist of neo-Marxist thought is simply obsolete. In the American 
debate, three positions can be schematically outlined. Postmodernism is 
dismissed outright as a fraud and modernism held up as the universal 
truth, a view which reflects the thinking of the 1950s. Or modernism is 
condemned as elitist and postmodernism praised as populist, a view which 
reflects the thinking of the 1960s. Or there is the truly 1970s proposition 
that “anything goes,” which is consumer capitalism’s cynical version of 
“nothing works,” but which at least recognizes that the older dichotomies 
no longer work. Needless to say, none of these positions ever reached the 
level of Habermas’ interrogation. 

However, there were problems not so much with the questions Haber¬ 
mas raised, as with some of the answers he suggested. Thus his attack on 
Foucault and Derrida as young conservatives drew immediate fire from 
poststructuralist quarters, where the reproach was turned around and Hab¬ 
ermas himself was labelled a conservative. At this point, the debate was 
quickly reduced to the silly question: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is 
the least conservative of us all?” And yet, the battle between “Frankfurters 
and French fries,” as Rainer Nagele once referred to it, is instructive 
because it highlights two fundamentally different visions of modernity. 
The French vision of modernity begins with Nietzsche and Mallarme and 
is thus quite close to what literary criticism describes as modernism. 
Modernity for the French is primarily—though by no means exclusively— 
an aesthetic question relating to the energies released by the deliberate 
destruction of language and other forms of representation. For Habermas, 



Mapping the Postmodern / 255 


on the other hand, modernity goes back to the best traditions of the 
Enlightenment, which he tries to salvage and to reinscribe into the 
present philosophical discourse in a new form. In this, Habermas differs 
radically from an earlier generation of Frankfurt School critics, Adorno 
and Horkheimer who, in The Dialectic of Enlightenment , developed a 
view of modernity which seems to be much closer in sensibility to 
current French theory than to Habermas. But even though Adorno and 
Horkheimer’s assessment of the enlightenment was so much more 
pessimistic than Habermas’, 11 they also held on to a substantive notion 
of reason and subjectivity which much of French theory has abandoned. 
It seems that in the context of the French discourse, enlightenment is 
simply identified with a history of terror and incarceration that reaches 
from the Jacobins via the metarecits of Hegel and Marx to the Soviet 
Gulag. I think Habermas is right in rejecting that view as too limited 
and as politically dangerous. Auschwitz, after all, did not result from 
too much enlightened reason—even though it was organized as a 
perfectly rationalized death factory—but from a violent anti-enlighten¬ 
ment and anti-modernity affect, which exploited modernity ruthlessly 
for its own purposes. At the same time, Habermas’ turn against the 
French post-Nietzschean vision of modernite as simply anti-modem or, 
as it were, postmodern, itself implies too limited an account of 
modernity, at least as far as aesthetic modernity is concerned. 

In the uproar over Habermas’ attack on the French poststructuralists, 
the American and European neo-conservatives were all but forgotten, but I 
think we should at least take cognizance of what cultural neo-conservatives 
actually say about postmodernism. The answer is fairly simple and 
straightforward: they reject it and they think it is dangerous. Two exam¬ 
ples: Daniel Bell, whose book on the postindustural society has been 
quoted time and again as supporting sociological evidence by advocates 
of postmodernism, actually rejects postmodernism as a dangerous popular¬ 
ization of the modernist aesthetic. Bell’s modernism only aims at aesthetic 
pleasure, immediate gratification and intensity of experience, all of which, 
to him, promote hedonism and anarchy. It is easy to see how such a 
jaundiced view of modernism is quite under the spell of those “ terrible” 
1960s and cannot at all be reconciled with the austere high modernism of 
a Kafka, a Schonberg or a T.S. Eliot. At any rate. Bell sees modernism 
as something like an earlier society’s chemical waste deposits which, 
during the 1960s, began to spill over, not unlike Love Canal, into the 
mainstrean of culture, polluting it to the core. Ultimately, Bell argues in 
the The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, modernism and postmod¬ 
ernism together are responsible for the crisis of contemporary capitalism. 34 
Bell—a postmodernist? Certainly not in the aesthetic sense, for Bell 
actually shares Habermas’ rejection of the nihilistic and aestheticist trend 



256 / Andreas Huyssen 


within modemist/postmodemist culture. But Habermas may have been 
right in the broader political sense. For Bell’s critique of contemporary 
capitalist culture is energized by a vision of a society in which the values 
and norms of everyday life would no longer be infected by aesthetic 
modernism, a society which, within Bell’s framework, one might have to 
call post-modern. But any such reflection on neo-conservatism as a form 
of anti-liberal, anti-progressive postmodemity remains beside the point. 
Given the aesthetic force-field of the term postmodernism, no neo-conser¬ 
vative today would dream of identifying the neo-conservative project as 
postmodern. 

On the contrary, cultural neo-conservatives often appear as the last- 
ditch defenders and champions of modernism. Thus in the editorial to the 
first issue of The New Criterion and in an accompanying essay entitled 
“Postmodern: Art and Culture in the 1980s,” 35 Hilton Kramer rejects the 
postmodern and counters it with a nostalgic call for the restoration of 
modernist standards of quality. Differences between Bell’s and Kramer’s 
accounts of modernism notwithstanding, their assessment of postmoder- 
ism is identical. In the culture of the 1970s, they will only see loss of 
quality, dissolution of the imagination, decline of standards and values, 
and the triumph of nihilism. But their agenda is not art history. Their 
agenda is political. Bell argues that postmodernism “undermines the 
social structure itself by striking at the motivational and psychic-reward 
system which has sustained it.” 3 *’ Kramer attacks the politicization of 
culture which, in his view, the 1970s have inherited from the 1960s, 
that “insidious assault on the mind.” And like Rudi Fuchs and the 1982 
Documenta, he goes on to shove art back into the closet of autonomy 
and high seriousness where it is supposed to uphold the new criterion 
of truth. Hilton Kramer—a postmodernist? No, Habermas was simply 
wrong, it seems, in his linkage of the postmodern with neo-conservatism. 
But again the situation is more complex than it seems. For Habermas, 
modernity means critique, enlightenment and human emancipation, and 
he is not willing to jettison this political impulse because doing so 
would terminate left politics once and for all. Contrary to Habermas, 
the neo-conservative resorts to an established tradition of standards and 
values which are immune to criticism and change. To Habermas, even 
Hilton Kramer’s neo-conservative defense of a modernism deprived of 
its adversary cutting edge would have to appear as post-modern, post¬ 
modern in the sense of anti-modem. The question in all of this is 
absolutely not whether the classics of modernism are or are not great 
works of art. Only a fool could deny that they are. But a problem does 
surface when their greatness is used as unsurpassable model and 
appealed to in order to stifle contemporary artistic production. Where 
that happens, modernism itself is pressed into the service of anti- 



Mapping the Postmodern / 257 


modem resentment, a figure of discourse which has a long history in 
the multiple querelles des anciens et des modernes. 

The only place where Habermas could rest assured of neo-conservative 
applause, however, is in his attack on Foucault and Derrida. Any such 
applause, however, would carry the proviso that neither Foucault nor 
Derrida be associated with conservatism. And yet, Habermas was right, in 
a sense, to connect the postmodernism problematic with poststructuralism. 
Roughly since the late 1970s, debates about aesthetic postmodernism 
and poststructuralist criticism have intersected in the U.S. The relentless 
hostility of neo-conservatives to both poststructuralism and postmodern¬ 
ism may not prove the point, but it is certainly suggestive. Thus the 
February 1984 issue of The New Criterion contains a report by Hilton 
Kramer on the Modem Language Association’s centennial convention last 
December in New York, and the report is polemically entitled “The MLA 
Centennial Follies.” The major target of the polemic is precisely French 
poststructuralism and its American appropriation. But the point is not the 
quality or the lack thereof in certain presentations at the convention. 
Again, the real issue is a political one. Deconstruction, feminist criticism, 
Marxist criticism, all lumped together as undesirable aliens, are said to 
have subverted American intellectual life via the academy. Reading 
Kramer, the cultural apocalypse seems near, and there would be no reason 
for surprise if The New Criterion were soon to cal! for an import quota on 
foreign theory. 

What, then, can one conclude from these ideological skirmishes for a 
mapping of postmodernism in the 1970s aand 1980s? First, Habermas was 
both right and wrong about the collusion of conservatism and postmodern¬ 
ism, depending on whether the issue is the neo-conservative political 
vision of a post-modem society freed from all aesthetic, i.e., hedonistic, 
modernist and postmodernist subversions, or whether the issue is aesthetic 
postmodernism. Secondly, Habermas and the neo-conservatives are right 
in insisting that postmodernism is not so much a question of style as it is 
a question of politics and culture at large. The neo-conservative lament 
about the politicization of culture since the 1960s is only ironic in this 
context since they themselves have a thoroughly political notion of culture. 
Thirdly, the neo-conservatives are also right in suggesting that there are 
continuities between the oppositional culture of the 1960s and that of the 
1970s. But their obsessive fixation on the 1960s, which they try to purge 
from the history books, blinds them to what is different and new in 
the cultural developments of the 1970s. And, fourthly, the attack on 
poststructuralism by Habermas and the American neo-conservatives raises 
the question of what to make of that fascinating interweaving and intersect¬ 
ing of poststructuralism with postmodernism, a phenomenon that is much 
more relevant in the U.S. than in France. It is to this question that I 



258 / Andreas Huyssen 


will now turn in my discussion of the critical discourse of American 
postmodernism in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Poststructuralism: Modern or postmodern? 

The neo-conservative hostility toward both is not really enough to 
establish a substantive link between postmodernism and poststructuralism; 
and it may indeed be more difficult to establish such a link than it would 
seem at first. Certainly, since the late 1970s we have seen a consensus 
emerge in the U.S. that if postmodernism represents the contemporary 
“avantgarde” in the arts, poststructuralism must be its equivalent in “criti¬ 
cal theory.” 37 Such a parallelization is itself favored by theories and 
practices of textuality and intertextuality which blur the boundaries be¬ 
tween the literary and the critical text, and thus it is not surprising that the 
names of the French maitres penseurs of our time occur with striking 
regularity in the discourse on the postmodern. 38 On a superficial level, the 
parallels seem indeed obvious. Just as postmodern art and literature have 
taken the place of an earlier modernism as the major trend of our times, 
poststructuralist criticism has decisively passed beyond the tenets of its 
major predecessor, the New Criticism. And just as the New Critics champi¬ 
oned modernism, so the story goes, poststructuralism—as one of the most 
vital forces of the intellectual life of the 1970s—must somehow be allied 
with the art and literature of its own time, i.e., with postmodernism. ’ 17 
Actually, such thinking, which is quite prevalent if not always made 
explicit, gives us a first indication of how American postmodernism still 
lives in the shadow of the modems. For there is no theoretical or historical 
reason to elevate the synchronism of the New Criticism with high modern¬ 
ism into norm or dogma. Mere simultaneity of critical and artistic discourse 
formations does not per se mean that they have to overlap, unless, of 
course, the boundaries between them are intentionally dismantled, as they 
are in modernist and postmodernist literature as well as in poststructuralist 
discourse. 

And yet, however much postmodernism and poststructuralism in the 
U.S. may overlap and mesh, they are far from identical or even homolo¬ 
gous. I do not question that the theoretical discourse of the 1970s has had 
a profound impact on the work of a considerable number of artists both 
in Europe and in the U.S. What I do question, however, is the way in 
which this impact is automatically evaluated in the U.S. as postmodern 
and thus sucked into the orbit of the kind of critical discourse that empha¬ 
sizes radical rupture and discontinuity. Actually, both in France and in 
the U.S. poststructuralism is much closer to modernism than is usually 
assumed by the advocates of postmodernism. The distance that does exist 
between the critical discourses of the New Criticism and poststructuralism 



Mapping the Postmodern / 259 


(a constellation which is only pertinent in the U.S., not in France) is not 
identical with the differences between modernism and postmodernism. 1 
will argue that poststructuralism is primarily a discourse of and about 
modernism, 40 and that if we are to locate the postmodern in poststructural¬ 
ism it will have to be found in the ways various forms of poststructuralism 
have opened up new problematics in modernism and have reinscribed 
modernism into the discourse formations of our own time. 

Let me elaborate my view that poststructuralism can be perceived, to 
a significant degree, as a theory of modernism. I will limit myself here 
to certain points that relate back to my discussion of the modernism/ 
postmodernism constellation in the 1960s and 1970s: the questions of 
aestheticism and mass culture, subjectivity and gender. 

If it is true that postmodemity is a historical condition making it suffi¬ 
ciently unique and different from modernity, then it is striking to see 
how deeply the poststructuralist critical discourse—in its obsession with 
ecriture and writing, allegory and rhetoric, and in its displacement of 
revolution and politics to the aesthetic—is embedded in that very modern¬ 
ist tradition which, at least in American eyes, it presumably transcends. 
What we find time and again is that American poststructuralist writers and 
critics emphatically privilege aesthetic innovation and experiment; that 
they call for self-reflexiveness, not, to be sure, of the author-subject, but 
of the text; that they purge life, reality, history, society from the work of 
art and its reception, and construct a new autonomy, based on a pristine 
notion of textuality, a new art for art’s sake which is presumably the only 
kind possible after the failure of all and any commitment. The insight that 
the subject is constituted in language and the notion that there is nothing 
outside the text have led to the privileging of the aesthetic and the linguistic 
which aestheticism has always promoted to justify its imperial claims. 
The list of 'no longer possibles’ (realism, representation, subjectivity, 
history, etc.,etc.) is as long in poststructuralism as it used to be in modern¬ 
ism, and it is very similar indeed. 

Much recent writing has challenged the American domestication of 
French poststructuralism. 41 But it is not enough to claim that in the transfer 
to the U.S. French theory lost the political edge it has in France. The 
fact is that even in France the political implications of certain forms 
of poststructuralism are hotly debated and in doubt. 42 It is not just the 
institutional pressures of American literary criticism which have depoliti- 
cized French theory; the aestheticist trend within poststructuralism itself 
has facilitated the peculiar American reception. Thus it is no coincidence 
that the politically weakest body of French writing (Derrida and the late 
Barthes) has been privileged in American literature departments over the 
more politically intended projects of Foucault and the early Baudrillard, 
Kristeva and Lyotard. But even in the more politically conscious and 



260 / Andreas Huyssen 


self-conscious theoretical writing in France, the tradition of modernist 
aestheticism—mediated through an extremely selective reading of Nie¬ 
tzsche—is so powerful a presence that the notion of a radical rupture 
between the modem and the postmodern cannot possibly make much 
sense. It is furthermore striking that despite the considerable differences 
between the various poststructuralist projects, none of them seems formed 
in any substantial way by postmodernist works of art. Rarely, if ever, do 
they even address postmodernist works. In itself, this does not vitiate the 
power of the theory. But it does make for a kind of dubbing where the 
poststructuralist language is not in sync with the lips and movements of 
the postmodern body. There is no doubt that center stage in critical theory 
is held by the classical modernists: Flaubert, Proust and Bataille in Barthes; 
Nietzsche and Heidegger, Mallarme and Artaud in Derrida; Nietzsche, 
Magritte and Bataille in Foucault; Mallarme and Lautreamont, Joyce and 
Artaud in Kristeva; Freud in Lacan; Brecht in Althusser and Macherey, 
and so on ad infinitum. The enemies still are realism and representation, 
mass culture and standardization, grammar, communication and the pre¬ 
sumably all-powerful homogenizing pressures of the modem State. 

I think we must begin to entertain the notion that rather than offering 
a theory of postmodernity and developing an analysis of contemporary 
culture, French theory provides us primarily with an archeology of 
modernity, a theory of modernism at the stage of its exhaustion. It is 
as if the creative powers of modernism had migrated into theory and 
come to full self-consciousness in the poststructuralist text—the owl of 
Minerva spreading its wings at the fall of dusk. Poststructuralism offers 
a theory of modernism characterized by Nachtraglichkeit, both in the 
psychoanalytic and the historical sense. Despite its ties to the tradition 
of modernist aestheticism, it offers a reading of modernism which 
differs substantially from those offered by the New Critics, by Adorno 
or by Greenberg. It is no longer the modernism of “the age of anxiety,” 
the ascetic and tortured modernism of a Kafka, a modernism of 
negativity and alienation, ambiguity and abstraction, the modernism of 
the closed and finished work of art. Rather, it is a modernism of playful 
transgression, of an unlimited weaving of textuality, a modernism all 
confident in its rejection of representation and reality, in its denial of 
the subject, of history, and of the subject of history; a modernism quite 
dogmatic in its rejection of presence and in its unending praise of lacks 
and absences, deferrals and traces which produce, presumably, not 
anxiety but, in Roland Barthes’ terms, jouissance, bliss. 43 

But if poststructuralism can be seen as the revenant of modernism in 
the guise of theory, then that would also be precisely what makes it 
postmodern. It is a postmodernism that works itself out not as a rejection 
of modernism, but rather as a retrospective reading which, in some cases. 



Mapping the Postmodern / 261 


is fully aware of modernism’s limitations and failed political ambitions. 
The dilemma of modernism had been its inability, despite the best inten¬ 
tions, to mount an effective critique of bourgeois modernity and modern¬ 
ization. The fate of the historical avantgarde especially had proven how 
modem art, even where it ventured beyond art for art’s sake, was ulti¬ 
mately forced back into the aesthetic realm. Thus the gesture of poststruc¬ 
turalism, to the extent that it abandons all pretense to a critique that would 
go beyond language games, beyond epistemology and the aesthetic, seems 
at least plausible and logical. It certainly frees art and literature from that 
overload of responsibilities—to change life, change society, change the 
world—on which the historical avantgarde shipwrecked, and which lived 
on in France through the 1950s and 1960s embodied in the figure of Jean 
Paul Sartre. Seen in this light, poststructuralism seems to seal the fate of 
the modernist project which, even where it limited itself to the aesthetic 
sphere, always upheld a vision of a redemption of modem life through 
culture. That such visions are no longer possible to sustain may be at 
the heart of the postmodern condition, and it may ultimately vitiate the 
poststructuralist attempt to salvage aesthetic modernism for the late twenti¬ 
eth century. At any rate, it all begins to ring false when poststructuralism 
presents itself, as it frequently does in American writings, as the latest 
“avantgarde” in criticism, thus ironically assuming, in its institutional 
Selbstverstandnis , the kind of teleological posturing which poststructural¬ 
ism itself has done so much to criticize. 

But even where such pretense to academic avantgardism is not the issue, 
one may well ask whether the theoretically sustained self-limitation to 
language and textuality has not been too high a price to pay; and whether 
it is not this self-limitation (with all it entails) which makes this poststruc¬ 
turalist modernism look like the atrophy of an earlier aestheticism rather 
than its innovative transformation. I say atrophy because the tum-of-the- 
century European aestheticism could still hope to establish a realm of 
beauty in opposition to what it perceived as the vulgarities of everyday 
bourgeois life, an artificial paradise thoroughly hostile to official politics 
and the kind of jingoism known in Germany as Hurrapatriotismus. Such 
an adversary function of aestheticism, however, can hardly be maintained 
at a time when capital itself has taken the aesthetic straight into the 
commodity in the form of styling, advertising and packaging. In an age 
of commodity aesthetics, aestheticism itself has become questionable 
either as an adversary or as a hibernating strategy. To insist on the 
adversary function of ecriture and of breaking linguistic codes when every 
second ad bristles with domesticated avantgardist and modernist strategies 
strikes me as caught precisely in that very overestimation of art’s transfor¬ 
mative function for society which is the signature of an earlier, modernist, 
age. Unless, of course ,ecriture is merely practiced as a glass bead game 



262 / Andreas Huyssen 


in happy, resigned, or cynical isolation from the realm the uninitiated 
keep calling reality. 

Take the later Roland Barthes. 44 His The Pleasure of the Text has 
become a major, almost canonical formulation of the postmodern for many 
American literary critics who may not want to remember that already 
twenty years ago Susan Sontag had called for an erotics of art intended to 
replace the stuffy and stifling project of academic interpretation. Whatever 
the differences between Barthes’ jouissance and Sontag’s erotics (the 
rigors of New Criticism and structuralism being the respective Feind- 
bilder), Sontag’s gesture, at the time, was a relatively radical one precisely 
in that it insisted on presence, on a sensual experience of cultural artifacts; 
in that it attacked rather than legitimized a socially sanctioned canon 
whose prime values were objectivity and distance, coolness and irony; 
and in that it licensed the flight from the lofty horizons of high culture 
into the netherlands of pop and camp. 

Barthes, on the other hand, positions himself safely within high culture 
and the modernist canon, maintaining equal distance from the reactionary 
Right which champions anti-intellectual pleasures and the pleasure of anti- 
intellectualism, and the boring Left which favors knowledge, commit¬ 
ment, combat, and disdains hedonism. The Left may indeed have forgot¬ 
ten, as Barthes claims, the cigars of Marx and Brecht. 45 But however 
convincing cigars may or may not be as signifiers of hedonism, Barthes 
himself certainly forgets Brecht’s constant and purposeful immersion in 
popular and mass culture. Barthes’ very un-Brechtian distinction between 
plaisir and jouissance —which he simultaneously makes and unmakes 46 — 
reiterates one of the most tired topoi of the modernist aesthetic and of 
bourgeois culture at large: there are the lower pleasures for the rabble, 
i.e., mass culture, and then there is the nouvelle cuisine of the pleasure 
of the text, of jouissance. Barthes himself describes jouissance as a 
“mandarin praxis,” 47 as a conscious retreat, and he describes modem mass 
culture in the most simplistic terms as petit-bourgeois. Thus his appraisal 
of jouissance depends on the adoption of that traditional view of mass 
culture that the Right and the Left, both of which he so emphatically 
rejects, have shared over the decades. 

This becomes even more explicit in The Pleasure of the Text where we 
read: “The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition: content, 
ideological schema, the blurring of contradictions—these are repeated, 
but the superficial forms are varied: always new books, new programs, 
new films, news items, but always the same meaning.” 48 Word for word, 
such sentences could have been written by Adorno in the 1940s. But, 
then, everybody knows that Adorno’s was a theory of modernism, not of 
postmodernism. Or was it? Given the ravenous eclecticism of postmodern¬ 
ism, it has recently become fashionable to include even Adorno and 



Mapping the Postmodern / 263 


Benjamin into the canon of postmodernists avant la lettre —truly a case 
of the critical text writing itself without the interference of any historical 
consciousness whatsoever. Yet the closeness of some of Barthes’ basic 
propositions to the modernist aesthetic could make such a rapprochement 
plausible. But then one might want to stop talking of postmodernism 
altogether, and take Barthes’ writing for what it is: a theory of modernism 
which manages to turn the dung of post-68 political disillusionment into 
the gold of aesthetic bliss. The melancholy science of Critical Theory has 
been transformed miraculously into a new “gay science,” but it still is, 
essentially, a theory of modernist literature. 

Barthes and his American fans ostensibly reject the modernist notion of 
negativity replacing it with play, bliss Jouissance, i.e., with a critical form 
of affirmation. But the very distinction between the jouissance provided by 
the modernist, “writerly” text and the mere pleasure ( plaisir ) provided by “ 
the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria,” 49 reintroduces, through the 
back door, the same high culture/low culture divide and the same type of 
evaluations which were constitutive of classical modernism. The negativity 
of Adorno’s aesthetic was predicated on the consciousness of the mental and 
sensual depravations of modem mass culture and on his relentless hostility 
to a society which needs such depravation to reproduce itself. The euphoric 
American appropriation of Barthes’ jouissance is predicated on ignoring 
such problems and on enjoying, not unlike the 1984 yuppies, the pleasures 
of writerly connoisseurism and textual gentrification. That, indeed, may be 
a reason why Barthes has hit a nerve in the American academy of the Reagan 
years, making him the favorite son who has finally abandoned his earlier 
radicalism and come to embrace the finer pleasures of life, pardon, the text. 50 
But the problems with the older theories of a modernism of negativity are 
not solved by somersaulting from anxiety and alienation into the bliss of 
jouissance. Such a leap diminishes the wrenching experiences of modernity 
articulated in modernist art and literature; it remains bound to the modernist 
paradigm by way of simple reversal; and it does very little to elucidate the 
problem of the postmodern. 

Just as Barthes’ theoretical distinctions between plaisir and jouissance, 
the readerly and the writerly text, remain within the orbit of modernist 
aesthetics, so the predominant poststructuralist notions about authorship 
and subjectivity reiterate propositions known from modernism itself. A 
few brief comments will have to suffice. 

In a discussion of Flaubert and the writerly, i.e., modernist, text Barthes 
writes: “He (Flaubert) does not stop the play of codes (or stops it only 
partially), so that (and this is indubitably the proof of writing) one never 
knows if he is responsible for what he writes (if there is a subject behind 
his language); for the very being of writing (the meaning of the labor that 
constitutes it) is to keep the question Who is speaking? from ever being 



264 / Andreas Huyssen 


answered.” 51 A similarly prescriptive denial of authorial subjectivity un¬ 
derlies Foucault’s discourse analysis. Thus Foucault ends his influential 
essay “What Is an Author?” by asking rhetorically “What matter who’s 
speaking?” Foucault’s “murmur of indifference” 52 affects both the writing 
and speaking subject, and the argument assumes its full polemical force 
with the much broader anti-humanist proposition, inherited from structur¬ 
alism, of the “death of the subject.” But none of this is more than a further 
elaboration of the modernist critique of traditional idealist and romantic 
notions of authorship and authenticity, originality and intentionality, self- 
centered subjectivity and personal identity. More importantly, it seems to 
me that as a postmodern, having gone through the modernist purgatory, 
I would ask different questions. Isn’t the “death of the subject/author” 
position tied by mere reversal to the very ideology that invariably glorifies 
the artist as genius, whether for marketing purposes or out of conviction 
and habit? Hasn’t capitalist modernization itself fragmented and dissolved 
bourgeois subjectivity and authorship, thus making attacks on such notions 
somewhat quixotic? And, finally, doesn’t poststructuralism, where it sim¬ 
ply denies the subject altogether, jettison the chance of challenging the 
ideology of the subject (as male, white, and middle-class) by developing 
alternative and different notions of subjectivity? 

To reject the validity of the question Who is writing? or Who is speak¬ 
ing? is simply no longer a radical position in 1984. It merely duplicates 
on the level of aesthetics and theory what capitalism as a system of 
exchange relations produces tendentially in everyday life: the denial of 
subjectivity in the very process of its construction. Poststructuralism thus 
attacks the appearance of capitalist culture—individualism writ large— 
but misses its essence; like modernism, it is always also in sync with 
rather than opposed to the real processes of modernization. 

The postmodems have recognized this dilemma. They counter the 
modernist litany of the death of the subject by working toward new theories 
and practices of speaking, writing and acting subjects. 53 The question of 
how codes, texts, images and other cultural artifacts constitute subjectivity 
is increasingly being raised as an always already historical question. And 
to raise the question of subjectivity at all no longer carries the stigma of 
being caught in the trap of bourgeois or petit-bourgeois ideology; the 
discourse of subjectivity has been cut loose from its moorings in bourgeois 
individualism. It is certainly no accident that questions of subjectivity and 
authorship have resurfaced with a vengeance in the postmodern text. After 
all, it does matter who is speaking or writing. 

Summing up, then, we face the paradox that a body of theories of 
modernism and modernity, developed in France since the 1960s, has come 
to be viewed, in the U.S., as the embodiment of the postmodern in theory. 
In a certain sense, this development is perfectly logical. Poststructural- 



Mapping the Postmodern / 265 


ism’s readings of modernism are new and exciting enough to be considered 
somehow beyond modernism as it has been perceived before; in this way 
poststructuralist criticism in the U.S. yields to the very real pressures of 
the postmodern. But against any facile conflation of poststructuralism with 
the postmodern, we must insist on the fundamental non-identity of the 
two phenomena. In America, too, poststructuralism offers a theory of 
modernism, not a theory of the postmodern. 

As to the French theorists themselves, they rarely speak of the postmod¬ 
ern. Lyotard’s La Condition Postmoderne, we must remember, is the 
exception, not the rule. 54 What the French explicitly analyze and reflect 
upon is le texte moderne and la modernite. Where they talk about the 
postmodern at all, as in the cases of Lyotard and Kristeva, 55 the question 
seems to have been prompted by American friends, and the discussion 
almost immediately and invariably turns back to problems of the modernist 
aesthetic. For Kristeva, the question of postmodernism is the question of 
how anything can be written in the twentieth century and how we can talk 
about this writing. She goes on to say that postmodernism is “that literature 
which writes itself with the more or less conscious intention of expanding 
the signifiable and thus the human realm.” 56 With the Bataillean formula¬ 
tion of writing-as-experience of limits, she sees the major writing since 
Mallarme and Joyce, Artaud and Burroughs as the “exploration of the 
typical imaginary relationship, that to the mother, through the most radical 
and problematic aspect of this relationship, language.” 57 Kristeva’s is a 
fascinating and novel approach to the question of modernist literature, and 
one that understands itself as a political intervention. But it does not 
yield much for an exploration of the differences between modernity and 
postmodernity. Thus it cannot surprise that Kristeva still shares with 
Barthes and the classical theorists of modernism an aversion to the media 
whose function, she claims, is to collectivize all systems of signs thus 
enforcing contemporary society’s general tendency toward uniformity. 

Lyotard, who like Kristeva and unlike the deconstructionists is a politi¬ 
cal thinker, defines the postmodern, in his essay “Answering the Question: 
What is Postmodernism?,” as a recurring stage within the modem itself. 
He turns to the Kantian sublime for a theory of the non-representable 
essential to modem art and literature. Paramount are his interest in reject¬ 
ing representation, which is linked to terror and totalitarianism, and his 
demand for radical experimentation in the arts. At first sight, the turn to 
Kant seems plausible in the sense that Kant’s autonomy aesthetic and 
notion of “disinterested pleasure” stands at the threshold of a modernist 
aesthetic, at a crucial juncture of that differentiation of spheres which has 
been so important in social thought from Weber to Habermas. And yet, 
the turn to Kant’s sublime forgets that the eighteenth century fascination 
with the sublime of the universe, the cosmos, expresses precisely that 



266 / Andreas Huyssen 


very desire of totality and representation which Lyotard so abhors and 
persistently criticizes in Habermas’ work/* Perhaps Lyotard’s text says 
more here than it means to. If historically the notion of the sublime harbors 
a secret desire for totality, then perhaps Lyotard’s sublime can be read as 
an attempt to totalize the aesthetic realm by fusing it with all other spheres 
of life, thus wiping out the differentiations between the aesthetic realm 
and the life-world on which Kant did after all insist. At any rate, it is no 
coincidence that the first modems in Germany, the Jena romantics, built 
their aesthetic strategies of the fragment precisely on a rejection of the 
sublime which to them had become a sign of the falseness of bourgeois 
accommodation to absolutist culture. Even today the sublime has not lost 
its link to terror which, in Lyotard’s reading, it opposes. For what would 
be more sublime and unrepresentable than the nuclear holocaust, the bomb 
being the signifier of an ultimate sublime. But apart from the question 
whether or not the sublime is an adequate aesthetic category to theorize 
contemporary art and literature, it is clear that in Lyotard’s essay the 
postmodern as aesthetic phenomenon is not seen as distinct from modern¬ 
ism. The crucial historical distinction which Lyotard offers in La Condition 
Postmoderne is that between the metarecits of liberation (the French 
tradition of enlightened modernity) and of totality (the German Hegelian/ 
Marxist tradition) on the one hand, and the modernist experimental dis¬ 
course of language games on the other. Enlightened modernity and its 
presumable consequences are pitted against aesthetic modernism. The 
irony in all of this, as Fred Jameson has remarked, 59 is that Lyotard’s 
commitment to radical experimentation is politically “very closely related 
to the conception of the revolutionary nature of high modernism that 
Habermas faithfully inherited from the Frankfurt School.” 

No doubt, there are historically and intellectually specific reasons for 
the French resistance to acknowledging the problem of the postmodern as 
a historical problem of the late twentieth century. At the same time, the 
force of the French rereading of modernism proper is itself shaped by the 
pressures of the 1960s and 1970s, and it has thus raised many of the key 
questions pertinent to the culture of our own time. But it still has done 
very little toward illuminating an emerging postmodern culture, and it has 
largely remained blind to or uninterested in many of the most promising 
artistic endeavors today. French theory of the 1960s and 1970s has offered 
us exhilarating fireworks which illuminate a crucial segment of the trajec¬ 
tory of modernism, but, as appropriate with fireworks, after dusk has 
fallen. This view is borne out by none less that Michel Foucault who, in 
the late 1970s, criticized his own earlier fascination with language and 
epistemology as a limited project of an earlier decade: “The whole relent¬ 
less theorization of writing which we saw in the 1960s was doubtless only 
a swansong.” 60 Swansong of modernism, indeed; but as such already a 



Mapping the Postmodern / 267 


moment of the postmodern. Foucault’s view of the intellectual movement 
of the 1960s as a swansong, it seems to me, is closer to the truth than its 
American rewriting, during the 1970s, as the latest avantgarde. 

Whither Postmodernism? 

The cultural history of the 1970s still has to be written, and the various 
postmodemisms in art, literature, dance, theater, architecture, film, video, 
and music will have to be discussed separately and in detail. All I want 
to do now is to offer a framework for relating some recent cultural and 
political changes to postmodernism, changes which already lie outside the 
conceptual network of “modemism/avantgardism” and have so far rarely 
been included in the postmodernism debate. 61 

I would argue that the contemporary arts—in the widest possible sense, 
whether they call themselves postmodernist or reject that label—can no 
longer be regarded as just another phase in the sequence of modernist and 
avantgardist movements which began in Paris in the 1850s and 1860s and 
which maintained an ethos of cultural progress and vanguardism through 
the 1960s. On this level, postmodernism cannot be regarded simply as a 
sequel to modernism, as the latest step in the neverending revolt of 
modernism against itself. The postmodern sensibility of our time is differ¬ 
ent from both modernism and avantgardism precisely in that it raises the 
question of cultural tradition and conservation in the most fundamental 
way as an aesthetic and a political issue. It doesn’t always do it success¬ 
fully, and it often does it exploitatively. And yet, my main point about 
contemporary postmodernism is that it operates in a field of tension 
between tradition and innovation, conservation and renewal, mass culture 
and high art, in which the second terms are no longer automatically 
privileged over the first; a field of tension which can no longer be grasped 
in categories such as progress vs. reaction, Left vs. Right, present vs. 
past, modernism vs. realism, abstraction vs. representation, avantgarde 
vs. Kitsch. The fact that such dichotomies, which after all are central to 
the classical accounts of modernism, have broken down is part of the shift 
in the following terms: Modernism and the avantgarde were always closely 
related to social and industrial modernization. They were related to it as 
an adversary culture, yes, but they drew their energies, not unlike Poe’s 
Man of the Crowd, from their proximity to the crises brought about by 
modernization and progress. Modernization—such was the widely held 
belief, even when the word was not around—had to be traversed. There 
was a vision of emerging on the other side. The modem was a world-scale 
drama played out on the European and American stage, with mythic 
modem man as its hero and with modem art as a driving force, just as 
Saint-Simon had envisioned it already in 1825. Such heroic visions of 



268 / Andreas Huyssen 


modernity and of art as a force of social change (or, for that matter, 
resistance to undesired change) are a thing of the past, admirable for sure, 
but no longer in tune with current sensibilities, except perhaps with an 
emerging apocalyptic sensibility as the flip side of modernist heroism. 

Seen in this light, postmodernism at its deepest level represents not just 
another crisis within the perpetual cycle of boom and bust, exhaustion and 
renewal, which has characterized the trajectory of modernist culture. It 
rather represents a new type of crisis of that modernist culture itself. Of 
course, this claim has been made before, and fascism indeed was a 
formidable crisis of modernist culture. But fascism was never the alterna¬ 
tive to modernity it pretended to be, and our situation today is very 
different from that of the Weimar Republic in its agony. It was only in 
the 1970s that the historical limits of modernism, modernity and modern¬ 
ization came into sharp focus. The growing sense that we are not bound 
to complete the project of modernity (Habermas’ phrase) and still do not 
necessarily have to lapse into irrationality or into apocalyptic frenzy, the 
sense that art is not exclusively pursuing some telos of abstraction, non¬ 
representation and sublimity—all of this has opened up a host of possibili¬ 
ties for creative endeavors today. And in certain ways it has altered our 
views of modernism itself. Rather than being bound to a one-way history 
of modernism which interprets it as a logical unfolding toward some 
imaginary goal, and which thus is based on a whole series of exclusions, 
we are beginning to explore its contradictions and contingencies, its 
tensions and internal resistances to its own “forward” movement. Post¬ 
modernism is far from making modernism obsolete. On the contrary, it 
casts a new light on it and appropriates many of its aesthetic strategies 
and techniques inserting them and making them work in new constella¬ 
tions. What has become obsolete, however, are those codifications of 
modernism in critical discourse which, however subliminally, are based 
on a teleological view of progress and modernization. Ironically, these 
normative and often reductive codifications have actually prepared the 
ground for that repudiation of modernism which goes by the name of the 
postmodern. Confronted with the critic who argues that this or that novel 
is not up to the latest in narrative technique, that it is regressive, behind 
the times and thus uninteresting, the postmodernist is right in rejecting 
modernism. But such rejection affects only that trend within modernism 
which has been codified into a narrow dogma, not modernism as such. In 
some ways, the story of modernism and postmodernism is like the story 
of the hedgehog and the hare: the hare could not win because there 
always was more than just one hedgehog. But the hare was still the better 
runner. . . 

The crisis of modernism is more that just a crisis of those trends 
within it which tie it to the ideology of modernization. In the age of late 



Mapping the Postmodern / 269 


capitalism, it is also a new crisis of art’s relationship to society. At their 
most emphatic, modernism and avantgardism attributed to art a privileged 
status in the processes of social change. Even the aestheticist withdrawal 
from the concern of social change is still bound to it by virtue of its denial 
of the status quo and the construction of an artificial paradise of exquisite 
beauty. When social change seemed beyond grasp or took an undesired 
turn, art was still privileged as the only authentic voice of critique and 
protest, even when it seemed to withdraw into itself. The classical accounts 
of high modernism attest to that fact. To admit that these were heroic 
illusions—perhaps even necessary illusions in art’s struggle to survive in 
dignity in a capitalist society—is not to deny the importance of art in 
social life. 

But modernism’s running feud with mass society and mass culture as 
well as the avantgarde’s attack on high art as a support system of cultural 
hegemony always took place on the pedestal of high art itself. And 
certainly that is where the avantgarde has been installed after its failure, 
in the 1920s, to create a more encompassing space for art in social life. 
To continue to demand today that high art leave the pedestal and relocate 
elsewhere (wherever that might be) is to pose the problem in obsolete 
terms. The pedestal of high art and high culture no longer occupies the 
privileged space it used to, just as the cohesion of the class which erected 
its monuments on that pedestal is a thing of the past; recent conservative 
attempts in a number of Western countries to restore the dignity of the 
classics of Western Civilization, from Plato via Adam Smith to the high 
modernists, and to send students back to the basics, prove the point. I am 
not saying here that the pedestal of high art does not exist any more. Of 
course it does, but it is not what it used to be. Since the 1960s, artistic 
activities have become much more diffuse and harder to contain in safe 
categories or stable institutions such as the academy, the museum or even 
the established gallery network. To some, this dispersal of cultural and 
artistic practices and activities will involve a sense of loss and disorienta¬ 
tion; others will experience it as a new freedom, a cultural liberation. 
Neither may be entirely wrong, but we should recognize that it was not 
only recent theory or criticism that deprived the univalent, exclusive and 
totalizing accounts of modernism of their hegemonic role. It was the 
activities of artists, writers, film makers, architects, and performers that 
have propelled us beyond a narrow vision of modernism and given us a 
new lease on modernism itself. 

In political terms, the erosion of the triple dogma modemism/modemity/ 
avantgardism can be contextually related to the emergence of the problem¬ 
atic of “otherness,” which has asserted itself in the socio-political sphere 
as much as in the cultural sphere. I cannot discuss here the various and 
multiple forms of otherness as they emerge from differences in subjectiv- 



270 / Andreas Huyssen 


ity, gender and sexuality, race and class, temporal Ungleichzeitigkeiten 
and spatial geographic locations and dislocations. But 1 want to mention 
at least four recent phenomena which, in my mind, are and will remain 
constitutive of postmodern culture for some time to come. 

Despite all its noble aspirations and achievements, we have come to 
recognize that the culture of enlightened modernity has also always 
(though by no means exclusively) been a culture of inner and outer 
imperialism, a reading already offered by Adorno and Horkheimer in the 
1940s and an insight not unfamiliar to those of our ancestors involved in the 
multitude of struggles against rampant modernization. Such imperialism, 
which works inside and outside, on the micro and macro levels, no longer 
goes unchallenged either politically, economically or culturally. Whether 
these challenges will usher in a more habitable, less violent and more 
democratic world remains to be seen, and it is easy to be skeptical. But 
enlightened cynicism is as insufficient an answer as blue-eyed enthusiasm 
for peace and nature. 

The women’s movement has led to some significant changes in social 
structure and cultural attitudes which must be sustained even in the face 
of the recent grotesque revival of American machismo. Directly and 
indirectly, the women’s movement has nourished the emergence of women 
as a self-confident and creative force in the arts, in literature, film and 
criticism. The ways in which we now raise questions of gender and 
sexuality, reading and writing, subjectivity and enunciation, voice and 
performance are unthinkable without the impact of feminism, even though 
many of these activities may take place on the margin or even outside the 
movement proper. Feminist critics have also contributed substantially to 
revisions of the history of modernism, not just by unearthing forgotten 
artists, but also by approaching the male modernists in novel ways. This 
is true also of the “new French feminists” and their theorization of the 
feminine in modernist writing, even though they often insist on maintain¬ 
ing a polemical distance from an American-type feminism. 62 

During the 1970s, questions of ecology and environment have deepened 
from single-issue politics to a broad critique of modernity and moderniza¬ 
tion, a trend which is politically and culturally much stronger in West 
Germany than in the U.S. A new ecological sensibility manifests itself 
not only in political and regional subcultures, in alternative life-styles and 
the new social movements in Europe, but it also affects art and literature 
in a variety of ways: the work of Joseph Beuys, certain land art projects, 
Christo’s California running fence, the new nature poetry, the return to 
local traditions, dialects, and so on. It was especially due to the growing 
ecological sensibility that the link between certain forms of modernism 
and technological modernization has come under critical scrutiny. 

There is a growing awareness that other cultures, non-European, non- 



Mapping the Postmodern / 271 


Western cultures must be met by means other than conquest or domination, 
as Paul Ricoeur put it more than twenty years ago, and that the erotic and 
aesthetic fascination with “the Orient”—so prominent in Western culture, 
including modernism—is deeply problematic. This awareness will have 
to translate into a type of intellectual work different from that of the 
modernist intellectual who typically spoke with the confidence of standing 
at the cutting edge of time and of being able to speak for others. Foucault’s 
notion of the local and specific intellectual as opposed to the “universal” 
intellectual of modernity may provide a way out of the dilemma of being 
locked into our own culture and traditions while simultaneously recogniz¬ 
ing their limitations. 

In conclusion, it is easy to see that a postmodernist culture emerging 
from these political, social and cultural constellations will have to be a 
postmodernism of resistance, including resistance to that easy postmodern¬ 
ism of the “anything goes” variety. Resistance will always have to be 
specific and contingent upon the cultural field within which it operates. It 
cannot be defined simply in terms of negativity or non-identity a la Adorno, 
nor will the litanies of a totalizing, collective project suffice. At the same 
time, the very notion of resistance may itself be problematic in its simple 
opposition to affirmation. After all, there are affirmative forms of resis¬ 
tance and resisting forms of affirmation. But this may be more a semantic 
problem than a problem of practice. And it should not keep us from 
making judgments. How such resistance can be articulated in art works 
in ways that would satisfy the needs of the political and those of the 
aesthetic, of the producers and of the recipients, cannot be prescribed, 
and it will remain open to trial, error and debate. But it is time to abandon 
that dead-end dichotomy of politics and aesthetics which for too long has 
dominated accounts of modernism, including the aestheticist trend within 
poststructuralism. The point is not to eliminate the productive tension 
between the political and the aesthetic, between history and the text, 
between engagement and the mission of art. The point is to heighten that 
tension, even to rediscover it and to bring it back into focus in the arts as 
well as in criticism. No matter how troubling it may be, the landscape of 
the postmodern surrounds us. It simultaneously delimits and opens our 
horizons. It’s our problem and our hope. 

Notes 

1. On this question see Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism or the Cultural 
Logic of Capitalism,” New Left Review, Vol. 146, July-August 1984, pp. 
53-92, whose attempt to identify postmodernism with a new stage in the 
developmental logic of capital, I feel, overstates the case. 

2. For a distinction between a critical and an affirmative postmodernism, see 



272 / Andreas Huyssen 


Hal Foster’s inroduction to The Anti-Aesthetic (Port Townsend, Washing¬ 
ton: Bay Press, 1984). Foster’s new essay in this issue, however, indicates 
a change of mind with regard to the critical potential of postmodernism. 

3. For an earlier attempt to give a Begriffsgeschichte of postmodernism in 
literature, see the various essays in Amerikastudien , 22:1 (1977), 9-46 
(includes a valuable bibliography). Cf. also Ihab Hassan, The Dismember¬ 
ment of Orpheus, second edition (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 
1982), especially the new “Postface 1982: Toward a Concept of Postmod¬ 
ernism,” pp. 259-271.—The debate about modernity and modernization in 
history and the social sciences is too broad to document here; for an excellent 
survey of the pertinent literature, see Hans-Ulrich Wehlder, Modernisier- 
ungstheorie und Geschichte (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 
1975).—On the question of modernity and the arts, see Matei Calinescu, 
Faces of Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977); Mar¬ 
shal Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity 
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982); Eugene Lunn, Marxism and Mod¬ 
ernism (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982); 
Peter Burger, Theory of the Avant garde (Minneapolis: University of Minne¬ 
sota Press, 1984). Also important for this debate is the recent work by 
cultural historians on specific cities and their culture, e.g., Carl Schorske’s 
and Robert Waissenberger’s work on fin-de-siecle Vienna, Peter Gay’s and 
John Willett’s work on the Weimar Republic, and, for a discussion of 
American anti-modernism at the turn of the century, T.J. Jackson Lears’ 
No Place of Grace (New York: Pantheon, 1981). 

4. On the ideological and political function of modernism in the 1950s cf. Jost 
Hermand, “Modernism Restored: West German Painting in the 1950s,” 
NGC, 32 (Spring/Summer 1984); and Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole 
the Idea of Modern Art (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1983). 

5. For a thorough discussion of this concept, see Robert Sayre and Michel 
Lowy, “Figures of Romantic Anti-Capitalism,” NGC, 32 (Spring/Summer 
1984). 

6. For an excellent discussion of the politics of architecture in the Weimar 
Republic see the exhibition catalogue Wem gehort die Welt: Kunst und 
Gesellschaft in der Weimarer Republik (Berlin: Neue Gesellschaft fur bil- 
dende Kunst, 1977), pp. 38-157. Cf. also Robert Hughes, “Trouble in 
Utopia,” in The Shock of the New (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), 
pp. 164—211. 

7. The fact that such strategies can cut different ways politically is shown by 
Kenneth Frampton in his essay “Towards a Critical Regionalism,” in The 
Anti-Aesthetic, pp. 23-38. 

8. Charles A. Jencks, The Language of Postmodern Architecture (New York: 
Rizzoli, 1977), p. 97. 

9. For Bloch’s concept of Ungleichzeitigkeit, see Ernst Bloch, “Non-Synchro¬ 
nism and the Obligation to its Dialectics,” and Anson Rabinbach’s “Ernst 



Mapping the Postmodern / 273 


Blochs’s Heritage of our Times and Facism,” in NGC, 11 (Spring 1977), 
5-38. 

10. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, Learning from Las 
Vegas (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972). Cf. also the earlier study by Venturi, 
Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: Museum of 
Modem Art, 1966). 

11. Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History (New York: 
and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 290. 

12. Iam mainly concerned here with the Selbstverstandnis of the artists, not 
with the question of whether their work really went beyond modernism or 
whether it was in all cases politically “progressive.” On the politics of the 
Beat rebellion see Barbara Ehrenreich, The Hearts of Men (New York: 
Doubleday, 1984), esp. pp. 52-67. 

13. Gerald Graff, “The Myth of the Postmodern Breakthrough,” in Literature 
Against Itself (C hicago: Chicago University Press, 1979), pp. 31-62. 

14. John Barth, “The Literature of Replenishment: Postmodernist Fiction,” 
Atlantic Monthly, 245:1 (January 1980), 65-71. 

15. Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic 
Books, 1976), p. 51. 

16. The specific connotations the notion of postmodemity has taken on in the 
German peace and anti-nuke movements as well as within the Green Party 
will not be discussed here, as this article is primarily concerned with the 
American debate.—In German intellectual life, the work of Peter Sloterdijk 
is eminently relevant for these issues, although Sloterdijk does not use the 
word “postmodern”; Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (Minn.: 
University of Minnesota Press, 1987). Equally pertinent is the peculiar 
German reception of French theory, especially of Foucault, Baudrillard, 
and Lyotard; see for example Der Tod der Moderne, Eine Diskussion 
(Tubingen: Konkursbuchverlag, 1983). On the apocalyptic shading of the 
postmodern in Germany see Ulrich Horstmann, Das Under. Konturen einer 
Philosophic der Menschenflucht (Wien-Berlin: Medusa, 1983). 

17. The following section will draw on arguments developed less fully in my 
earlier article entitled “The Search for Tradition: Avantgarde and Postmod¬ 
ernism in the 1970s,” NGC, 22 (Winter, 1981), 23-40. Also in Huyssen, 
After the Great Divide (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986). 

18. Peter Burger, Theory of the Avantgarde (Minneapolis: University of Minne¬ 
sota Press, 1984).The fact that Burger reserves the term avantgarde for 
mainly these three movements may strike the American reader as idiosyn¬ 
cratic or as unnecessarily limited unless the place of the argument within 
the tradition of twentieth-century German aesthetic thought from Brecht 
and Benjamin to Adorno is understood. 

19. This difference between modernism and the avantgarde was one of the 
pivotal points of disagreement between Benjamin and Adorno in the 1930s, 
a debate to which Burger owes a lot. Confronted with the successful 



274 / Andreas Huyssen 


fusion of aesthetics, politics and everyday life in fascist Germany, Adorno 
condemned the avantgarde’s intention to merge art with life and continued 
to insist, in best modernist fashion, on the autonomy of art; Benjamin on 
the other hand, looking backward to the radical experiments in Paris, 
Moscow and Berlin in the 1920s, found a messianic promise in the avant- 
garde, especially in surrealism, a fact which may help explain Benjamin's 
strange (and, I think, mistaken) appropriation in the U.S. as a postmodern 
critic avant la lettre. 

20. Cf. my essay “The Cultural Politics of Pop," New German Critique, 4 
(Winter 1975), 77-97. Also in Huyssen, After the Great Divide. 

21. The Left’s fascination with the media was perhaps more pronounced in 
Germany that it was in the U.S. Those were the years when Brecht’s 
radio theory and Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical 
Reproduction” almost became cult texts. See, for example, Hans Magnus 
Enzensberger, “Baukasten zu einer Theorie der Medien,” Kursbuch, 20 
(March 1970), 159-186. Reprinted in H.M.E., Palaver (Frankfurt am 
Main: Suhrkamp, 1974). The old belief in the democratizing potential of 
the media is also intimidated on the last pages of Lyotard’s The Postmodern 
Condition, not in relation to radio, film or television, but in relation to 
computers. 

22. Leslie Fiedler, “The New Mutants” (1965), A Fiedler Reader (New York: 
Stein and Day, 1977), pp. 189-210. 

23. Edward Lucie-Smith, Art in the Seventies (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 
1980), p. 11. 

24. For a lucid discussion of Greenberg’s theory of modem art in its historical 
context see T.J. Clark, “Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art,” Critical 
Inquiry,9:1 (September 1982), 139-156. For a different view of Greenberg 
see Ingeborg Hoesterey, “Die Modeme am Ende? Zu den asthetischen 
Positionen von Jurgen Habermas und Clement Greenberg,” Zeitschrift fur 
Asthetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, 29:2 (1984). On Adorno’s 
theory of modernism see Eugene Lunn, Marxism and Modernism (Berkeley 
and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982); Peter Burger, 
Vermittlung — Rezeption—Funktion (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1980). 
Cf. also my essay “Adorno in Reverse: From Hollywood to Richard 
Wagner,” NGC, 29 (Spring-Summer 1983), 8-38. Also in Huyssen, After 
the Great Divide. 

25. See Craig Owens, “The Discourse of Others,” in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti- 
Aesthetic pp. 65-90. 

26. It is with the recent publications by Fred Jameson and Hal Foster’s The 
Anti-Aesthetic that things have begun to change. 

27. Of course, those who hold this view will not utter the word “realism” as it 
is tarnished by its traditionally close association with the notions of “reflec¬ 
tion,” “representation,” and a transparent reality; but the persuasive power 
of the modernist doctrine owes much to the underlying idea that only 
modernist art and literature are somehow adequate to our time. 



Mapping the Postmodern / 275 


28. For a work that remains very much in the orbit of Marx’s notion of modernity 
and tied to the political and cultural impulses of the American 1960s see 
Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: the Experience of 
Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982). For a critique of Berman 
see David Bathrick’s review essay in this issue. 

29. Jurgen Habermas, “Modernity versus Postmodemity,” NGC, 22 (Winter 
1981), 3-14. (Reprinted in Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic.) 

30. Jean-Fran^ois Lyotard, “Answering the Question: What Is Postmodern¬ 
ism?” in The Postmodern Condition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota 
Press, 1984), pp. 71-82. 

31. Martin Jay, “Habermas and Modernism,” Praxis International , 4:1 (April 
1984), 1-14. Cf. in the same issue Richard Rorty, “Habermas and Lyotard 
on Postmodemity,” 32-44. 

32. Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason. Sloterdijk himself tries to 
salvage the emancipatory potential of reason in ways fundamentally differ¬ 
ent from Habermas’, ways which could indeed be called postmodern. For 
a brief, but incisive discussion in English of Sloterdijk’s work see Leslie 
A. Adelson, “Against the Enlightenment: A Theory with Teeth for the 
1980s,” German Quarterly, 57:4 (Fall 1984), 625-631. 

33. Cf. Jurgen Habermas, “The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment Re¬ 
reading Dialectic of Enlightenment," NGC, 26 (Spring-Summer 1982), 13- 
30. Also in Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cam¬ 
bridge: MIT Press, 1987). 

34. Of course there is another line of argument in the book which does link the 
crisis of capitalist culture to economic developments. But I think that as a 
rendering of Bell’s polemical stance the above description is valid. 

35. The Editors, “A Note on The New Criterion ,” The New Criterion, 1:1 
(September 1982), 1-5. Hilton Kramer, “Postmodern: Art and Culture in 
the 1980s,” ibid, 36-42. 

36. Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, p. 54. 

37. I follow the current usage in which the term “critical theory” refers to 
a multitude of recent theoretical and interdisciplinary endeavors in the 
humanities. Originally, Critical Theory was a much focused term that 
referred to the theory developed by the Frankfurt School since the 1930s. 
Today, however, the critical theory of the Frankfurt School is itself only a 
part of an expanded field of critical theories, and this may ultimately benefit 
its reinscription in contemporary critical discourse. 

38. The same is not always true the other way round, however. Thus American 
practitioners of deconstruction usually are not very eager to address the 
problem of the postmodern. Actually, American deconstruction, such as 
practiced by the late Paul de Man, seems altogether unwilling to grant a 
distinction between the modem and the postmodern at all. Where de Man 
addresses the problem of modernity directly, as in his seminal essay “Liter¬ 
ary History and Literary Modernity” in Blindness and Insight, he projects 



276 / Andreas Huyssen 


characteristics and insights of modernism back into the past so that ulti¬ 
mately all literature becomes, in a sense, essentially modernist. 

39. A cautionary note may be in order here. The term poststructuralism is by 
now about as amorphous as ‘postmodernism,’ and it encompasses a variety 
of quite different theoretical endeavors. For the purposes of my discussion, 
however, the differences can be bracketed temporarily in order to approach 
certain similarities between different poststructuralist projects. 

40. This part of the argument draws on the work about Foucault by John 
Rajchman, “Foucault, or the Ends of Modernism,” October , 24 (Spring 
1983), 37-62, and on the discussion of Derrida as a theorist of modernism 
in Jochen Schulte-Sasse’s introduction to Peter Burger, Theory of the 
Avantgarde. 

41. Jonathan Arac, Wlad Godzich, Wallace Martin, eds.. The Yale Critics: 
Deconstruction in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 
1983). 

42. See Nancy Fraser’s article in New German Critique, No. 33. 1984. 

43. ‘Bliss’ is an inadequate rendering of jouissance as the English term lacks 
the crucial bodily and hedonistic connotations of the French word. 

44. My intention is not to reduce Barthes to the positions taken in his later 
work. The American success of this work, however, makes it permissible 
to treat it as a symptom, or, if you will, as a “mythologie .” 

45. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 
1975), p. 22. 

46. See Tania Modleski, “The Terror of Pleasure: The Contemporary Horror 
Film and Postmodern Theory,” in Modleski, ed.. Studies in Entertainment 
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp. 155-166. 

47. Barthes, p. 38. 

48. Barthes, p. 41 f. 

49. Barthes, p. 14. 

50. Thus the fate of pleasure according to Barthes was extensively discussed at 
a forum of the 1983 MLA while an hour later, in a session on the future of 
literary criticism, various speakers extolled the emergence of a new histori¬ 
cal criticism. This, it seems to me, marks an important line of conflict and 
tension in the current litcrit scene in the U.S. 

51. Roland Barthes, S/Z (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), p. 140. 

52. Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” in Language, counter-memory, 
practice (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 138. 

53. This shift in interest back to questions of subjectivity is actually also present 
in some of the later poststructuralist writings, for instance in Kristeva’s 
work on the symbolic and the semiotic and in Foucault’s work on sexuality. 
On Foucault see Biddy Martin, “Feminism, Criticism, and Foucault,” A^GC, 
27 (Fall 1982), 3-30. On the relevance of Kristeva’s work for the American 



Mapping the Postmodern / 277 


context see Alice Jardine, “Theories of the Feminine,” Enclitic, 4:2 (Fall 
1980), 5-15; and “Pre-Texts for the Transatlantic Feminist,” Yale French 
Studies, 62 (1981), 222-236. Cf. also Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn't: 
Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 
1984), especially ch. 6 “Semiotics and Experience.” 

54. Jean-Fran§ois Lyotard, La Condition Postmoderne (Paris: Minuit, 1979). 
English translation The Postmodern Condition (Minneapolis: University of 
Minnesota Press, 1984). 

55. The English translation of La Condition Postmoderne includes the essay, 
important for the aesthetic debate, “Answering the Question: What is Post¬ 
modernism?” For Kristeva’s statement on the postmodern see “Postmodern¬ 
ism?" Bucknell Review, 25:11 (1980), 136-141. 

56. Kristeva, “Postmodernism?” 137. 

57. Ibid, 139 f. 

58. In fact. The Postmodern Condition is a sustained attack on the intellectual 
and political traditions of the Enlightenment embodied for Lyotard in the 
work of Jurgen Habermas. 

59. Fredric Jameson, “Foreword” to Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p. 
XVI. 

60. Michel Foucault, “Truth and Power,” in Power!Knowledge (New York: 
Pantheon, 1980), p. 127. 

61. The major exception is Craig Owens, “The Discourse of Others,” in Hal 
Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic, p. 65-98. 

62. Cf. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivon, eds.. New French Feminisms 
(Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980). For a critical view of 
French theories of the feminine cf. the work by Alice Jardine cited in 
Footnote 56 and her essay “Gynesis,” diacritics, 12:2 (Summer 1982), 54- 
65. 







Part III 

Identity and Differentiation 





11 


A Feminist Theory of 
Social Differentiation 

Anna Yeatman 


Feminist social scientists have two identities: feminist and social scien¬ 
tist. Naively, I have thought these identities to be mutually required. The 
idea of the social is the core orienting (“ultimate”) value of both feminism 
and social science, or so I thought. By the idea of social 1 mean the 
distinctively modem self-conception where we comprehend ourselves as 
a community of agents whose agency constructs the world in which we 
live. A society is any self-interpreting community of agents, and an 
agent is one who participates in the communicative structures of self¬ 
interpretation and legitimation. If a feminist could be assumed to be 
oriented by the purpose of transcending the inequality and patriarchy built 
into the modem gender division of labor, this purpose could be forwarded 
only by, first, revealing the conventional or agentic character of that 
gender division of labor and, second, by inquiring as to what equality of 
status as agents may mean for restructuring relations between males and 
females and insuring that any social division of labor is congruent with 
that equality of status. In short a post-patriarchal order would require the 
de-constitution of the mutually exclusive cultural categories “men” and 
“women,” and the re-situation of all as social actors, units of social 
agency. None of this seemed to make any sense without the idea of the 
social. 

Similarly, it seemed to me that social scientists in general, and sociolo¬ 
gists in particular, would be excited by the challenges which the feminist 
project of a post-patriarchal complex society demanded of their theoretical 
understanding of the idea of the social. Specifically, I was struck by the 
promise of the feminist challenge for the idea of social differentiation 
which Durkheim, Parsons, Luhmann, and others have developed to con¬ 
note the nature of the complexity of an industrialized, “modem” society. 
Both Parsons and Luhmann have developed this idea to show how the 


281 



282 / Anna Yeatman 


various subsystems of a modem society—for example, the polity, the 
occupational system, the educational system, family life, and so forth— 
are “differentiated” as distinct but mutually dependent functional parts of 
the whole. This is a structural-functionalism which has considerable merit 
for the self-interpretation of a modem society since it shows the necessity 
of the relative autonomy of each of these functional spheres, and in this 
way espouses a sociological pluralism which indicates the nature of the 
connection between the complexity of this multisphered modem society 
and a cultural orientation to democratic values. A democratic respect for 
plural viewpoints can be only underlined by an appreciation of the plurality 
of life spheres. 

In particular, a theory of social differentiation promises a more adequate 
and consistent elaboration of the idea of the social as this connotes the 
requirements of an agentic community than is available in “older” theoreti¬ 
cal accounts of “society.” For example, the Aristotelian account of society 
qua polis is an account of the genetic progression from a procreative 
human couple united with their progeny and slaves (the household) to a 
community of households (the village) to an association of villages (the 
polis). The freedom of the polis depends on a hierarchical ordering of 
relationships where the least inclusive (the household) are the most natural, 
and where the freedom of the most inclusive (the polis) depends on a 
freedom from the natural exigencies (needs) which determine the sub¬ 
stance of household relationships. Agency is a barely emergent value in 
this account, and the hierarchy differentiating different types of humans 
(free men, women, children, slaves) differentiates those who are more or 
less capable of agency. The modem theories of social differentiation, on 
the other hand, display a metaphor of horizontal (lateral) integration, the 
implication being that, since all functional spheres are equally necessary 
to the life of the social system, they are equally social and, thus, equally 
participant in an agentic order. Accordingly, when Parsons (Parsons and 
Bales, 1955: 16) declares that “It is because the human personality is not 
‘bom’ but must be ‘made’ through the socialization process that in the 
first instances families are necessary” he appears to be drawing family life 
into the agentic order by according it the functions of primary socialization 
of individual agents and of ongoing recognition of their uniqueness and 
integrity as individual agents. In this perspective the family is not more 
natural than the polity but represents a different order of requirements for 
a culture of agency to operate. 

We might have expected this theoretical orientation to social differentia¬ 
tion to have welcomed contemporary feminist development of the idea of 
social differentiation. Feminists have argued that, if social differentiation 
is to operate equitably, and if all individual agents are to be equally 
developed in the requirements of an agentic culture, then social differentia- 



A Feminist Theory of Social Differentiation / 283 


tion must be restructured so that it becomes a feature of every individual 
agent’s life. Instead of the “primitive” version of social differentiation 
where social functions (parenting, for example) are delegated to particular 
classes of agents, all agents are to participate in the several life spheres of 
their society. This means that the differentiation between these spheres— 
between “work” and “family,” for example—must be restructured so as 
to permit individual agents to participate in all of them and to ensure that 
the patterns of participation in any one sphere or across all of them do not 
advantage or disadvantage particular groups of agents. The corollary of 
this is that the identity of individual agents develops a complexity conso¬ 
nant with their participation in all of the life spheres of a modem society. 
This must mean that they all develop a more adequate understanding 
of the kind of policies required for the effective intercalation of the 
differentiated spheres and for their relatively independent operation as 
distinct spheres. 1 Altogether this is a more consistent and mature account 
of the idea of social differentiation than can be found in the prefeminist 
exponents of the idea. 

These being the types of assumptions I made, I began to work on 
the project of developing a feminist or post-patriarchal theory of social 
differentiation. The project has foundered on several shoals. These can 
be reduced to three central problems. First, social science in general and 
sociology in particular are proving refractory to the paradigm challenge 
which post-patriarchal values represent. Second, contemporary feminist 
theory is having to come to terms with its affinity with postmodernism, 
and it is therefore confronted with issues of how to situate its own value 
commitments in relation to the relativistic implications of a postmodern 
pluralism. Third, it is not clear that the demands of a postmodern discursive 
universe permit, in the sense of giving legitimacy to, “grand theorizing” 
of the type that any systems theory involves. In short, there are method¬ 
ological as well as substantive issues posed by the postmodern situation 
of feminist theorizing. 

In this paper I want to examine these three hindrances to proceeding 
with a post-patriarchal theory of social differentiation, and see where they 
leave such a project. Since I sense myself cutting loose from old moorings, 
I assume my conclusions will have a highly provisional character. In this 
exercise, however, I have the comfort of knowing that other feminist 
(social) theorists are confronting similar issues and asking similar ques¬ 
tions. 

Is Modern Social Science Inherently Patriarchal? 

As posed the question is tautological. This is because it is clear now 
that the social sciences, including sociology, are structured by a modernist 



284 / Anna Yeatman 


perspective. It is precisely the postmodern features of feminist theorizing 
which enable its perception of a “paradigm” difference between itself and 
modem social science, although it must be said that feminism lies on the 
cusp of a paradigm revolution and the features of the alternative emergent 
paradigm are not yet clear. 2 

There is a note of what may be described only as bewilderment in two 
feminist-sociologist examinations of why sociology seems to have proved 
so resistant to feminist challenge (see Stacey and Thome, 1985; Yeatman, 
1986). Indeed Stacey and Thome (1985: 302) conclude that “feminist 
sociologists—especially when compared with our counterparts in anthro¬ 
pology, history, and literature—have been less successful in moving to 
the next stage of reconstructing basic paradigms of the discipline.” The 
bewilderment exists precisely because it would seem that the core premise, 
or presupposition, of sociology—the idea of the social—provides a ready 
accommodation of sociological to feminist agendas. For example, in my 
own discussion (1986: 162) of “Women, Domestic Life and Sociology,” 
I carefully prepared the ground for this statement: 

In principle, then, we can say that sociology as a theoretical enterprise 
offers a welcome to a feminist agenda. However, the actual history of 
sociology indicates this theoretical friendliness is contradicted and, 
often overcome, by persisting masculinist bias. If the promise of sociol¬ 
ogy in respect of the feminist agenda is to be realized, it is important 
to track and reject this bias. At the same time, this will be to develop 
and strengthen the general theoretical enterprise that characterizes soci¬ 
ology. In the light of what I have argued above to be the current phase 
of the feminist agenda, 1 will track this masculinist bias of sociology 
as it is expressed in failure to incorporate domestic or personal life in 
how social life is conceived. 

The phrase “masculinist bias” indicates that I was not willing to entertain 
the idea that the fundamental theoretical structures of sociology are mas¬ 
culinist. In retrospect it seems obvious that my own argument indicates 
that it is not an issue of a flaw that can be corrected but an issue of a 
paradigm revolution. 

In relation to the other social sciences—anthropology, social psychol¬ 
ogy, political economy, social history—it is sociology which has had the 
distinctive mission of elaborating the core or axial value of social science: 
the idea of the social. Allied to this mission is the identification of sociol¬ 
ogy with the reflexive, self-interpretive conventions of a self-styled “mod¬ 
em” society. Accordingly if it should turn out that the idea of the social 
is a distinctively modernist idea then, clearly, sociology must prove more 
vulnerable and therefore more resistant to the paradigm challenge which 
postmodernist feminism represents. 



A Feminist Theory of Social Differentiation / 285 

Like all other “disciplines” in a highly professionalized world of ex¬ 
panded higher education, sociology is subject to all the features which 
make them disciplines in the Foucauldian sense of that word. That is, like 
other disciplines, sociology is a specific set of institutionalized intellectual 
practices which involve rigorously maintained gatekeeping procedures 
that police what have come to be institutionalized as the substantive and 
methodological canons of the discipline (see Foucault, 1984). Moreover, 
the high degree of professionalization and specialization of knowledge 
production means that, like other knowledge disciplines, sociology has 
become identified both with a highly technical discourse and with routin- 
ized knowledge production. Such features keep sociology segregated from 
widely shared issues of cultural significance. Tied to this increasingly 
esoteric quality of sociology is the virtual impossibility of staging generic 
theoretical debates found to be of relevance for most participants in the 
discipline. When such debates appear to occur, their segregation within 
what is now a sub-discipline—sociological theory—underlines their status 
as a doxology constructed in relation to the “founding” debates of the 
discipline, the ones inaugurated by those who have been appropriated 
within the genealogy of the discipline as its classicists: Marx, Weber, 
Durkheim. Inevitably the contemporary echoes of these original voices 
lack their vigor and vitality. 

If, however, it is merely a phase of routinization which has obstructed 
sociology’s openness to new challenges like feminism, perhaps we can 
take comfort from Weber’s (1949: 112) proposal of some kind of cyclical 
progression of any rationalized knowledge through charismatic stages of 
renewal and openness and routinized stages of theoretical closure: 

All research in the cultural sciences in an age of specialization once it 
is oriented towards a given subject matter through particular settings of 
problems and has established its methodological principles, will con¬ 
sider the analysis of the data as an end in itself. It will discontinue 
assessing the value of the individual facts in terms of their relationship 
to ultimate value-ideas. Instead it will lose its awareness of its ultimate 
rootedness in the value-ideas in general. And it is well that should be 
so. But there comes a moment when the atmosphere changes. The 
significance of the unreflectively utilized viewpoints become uncertain 
and the road is lost in the twilight. The light of the great cultural 
problems moves on. Then science too prepares to change its standpoint 
and its analytical apparatus and to view the streams of events from the 
heights of thought. 

“The light of the great cultural problems” has moved on, but it is not clear 
that there is any automaticity in the extent to which sociology is prepared 
to follow suit. Sociology is an intellectual enterprise structured by the 



286 / Anna Yeatman 


dualisms of the modernist perspective. Its own particular versions of these 
dualisms—for example, structure/agency, social structure/culture, social/ 
psychological, family/society—are logically derivative of the basic dualis- 
tic structure of the modernist consciousness: individual/society; subjective/ 
objective; reason/emotion, and so forth. Sociology cannot change this 
modernist framework of reference which has governed it as a specific 
intellectual enterprise without abandoning its whole tradition and ap¬ 
proach, without, that is, becoming something other than itself. Yet it is 
precisely the nature of the contemporary feminist challenge to require 
sociology, as all expressions of modem science, to move beyond this 
dualistic ordering of reality in the direction of integrating what have been 
regarded hitherto as opposing terms. 

When the challenge is such as to implicate the very identity of sociology 
as an intellectual and professional enterprise, we would expect there to be 
sustained resistance from those whose identities and careers are bound up 
with this enterprise. Thus, even though all theoretically sophisticated 
sociologists acknowledge the conventional and increasingly anachronistic 
quality of the dualisms which structure their intellectual enterprise, there 
is a tacit consent to abide by the conventional structures of the discipline. 
In this way they are stabilized as an orthodoxy, and institutional and 
professional authority is used to keep the feminist challenge at bay and 
the increasing theoretical impoverishment of the professional enterprise 
hidden from view. This is the primary reason for the discipline becoming 
more and more like a discipline in the Foucauldian sense. Any discipline 
which is at a stage of defending itself against paradigm challenge per- 
forcedly draws ranks and assumes a stance of closure, where large substan¬ 
tive questions are precluded as irrelevant and where canonical precision 
and technical perfection are rewarded. 

It makes sense also that this resistance is deepest and most sustained in 
those disciplines which are assigned roles in the essential gatekeeping of 
modernist conventions. The disciplines of sociology, economics, psychol¬ 
ogy and political science have been each assigned specific roles in a 
division of such gatekeeping labor, where their specific version of the 
modernist dualisms supplies a necessary variant of this logical structure, 
such that taken together they constituted a universe rather than parts of 
one. In short it is these disciplines which supply the synchronies of the 
dualistic ordering of reality. History, literature, and anthropology are 
discursively rather than strategically related to the modernist conventions, 
which is why they may be more susceptible to the feminist challenge, as 
Stacey and Thome claim. The latter may have the discursive space to 
admit a plurality of conventions and perspectives that the former lack, 
although it should not be supposed that this means that literature, history, 
and anthropology can genuinely accommodate a post-dualistic perspec- 



A Feminist Theory of Social Differentiation / 287 


tive. Their pluralism shields a modernist structure of mind precisely 
because it is a boundless and fully relativized type of pluralism. I will 
have more to say on this issue in the next section where I discuss relativist 
tendencies in postmodernism. 

The place of sociology in this strategic gatekeeping of modernist con¬ 
ventions is an interesting one. Charged with the role of elaborating the 
idea of the social, the central dualistic convention in sociology is that 
which counterposes the terms “social” and “natural.” While sociologists 
elaborate the value of “social” to cover all aspects of human existence, 
and thereby to bring them within a systemic domain of agency, and inter¬ 
agency, they do so in such a way as to presuppose the “natural” as a 
logical residual and limiting term. This enables sociology to maintain the 
ruling modernist fiction—the contraposition of the values “individual” 
and “society”—by identifying the “natural” aspects of human actors with 
their individual aspects. 4 The consequence is that the idea of the social is 
identified with trans-individual, nonindividual, and, even, anti-individual 
values. This is why the modem idea of the social cannot assimilate the 
feminist challenge nor provide intellectual direction for it. 

Finally, it is necessary to say something of the structure of power which 
is constituted by the modernist dualistic ordering of reality. This feature 
becomes evident when we reflect on the dualisms which are inscribed in 
the basic structures of modem authority relations: men and women; parents 
and children; management and workers. These dualisms are articulated in 
relation to each other within the governing model of what it means to be 
an individual in the modernist sense of that term. An individual is one 
who “heads” and “manages” a unit of household and/or productive econ¬ 
omy , where the historical conventions of a preindustrial, patriarchal house¬ 
hold economy are maintained and mediated under new conditions. Thus 
to be an individual one has to both command a unit of domestic economy 
(a consumption-oriented family) and command effective market capacity 
as a private proprietor, even if the property concerned in this context is 
one’s own capacity to labor. To be sure, in the marketplace some are more 
effective individuals than others, that is to say, own more property or 
wealth, and it is this hierarchy of effective market capacity which locates 
these individuals in the hierarchical relationship of management and 
worker. 

The point is that the central motif of the modernist model of individuality 
is private property: individuality resides in ownership of private property, 
in what Macpherson (1962) called “possessive individualism.” Under the 
conditions of household economy wives, children, and household servants 
were located within the private property of masculine individuals (see 
Yeatman, 1984). This patriarchalist character of modem private property 
has been mediated rather than eroded by the increasing tendency since the 



288 / Anna Yeatman 


Married Women’s Property Acts of the mid to late nineteenth century to 
locate wives and children in the formal status of being persons in their 
own right. 

The dualistic ordering of reality follows from as much as it constitutes 
the structures of modem patriarchalist individuality. For an individuality 
which inheres in private property, the values of private and public, 
individual and social must be always dichotomously arraigned. Patriar¬ 
chalist individuals establish their individuality via the medium of 
subjective mastery over (1) others and things placed within what is 
conceived as the domain of objects (the modem connotation of “nature”) 
and (2) themselves (self-mastery). Perforcedly this is an individuality 
which limits freedom, that is to say, freedom qua subjective mastery, 
to one term of a whole series of oppositions or dichotomies: subject/ 
object; reason/nature; mind/body; science/intuition; impersonal/personal; 
masculine/feminine; adult/child; independence/dependence; public/pri¬ 
vate; individual/society; market/state. The dichotomous operation of 
terms means that individual freedom can slip from one term to its 
opposite, and back again: thus, there is a sense in which this dichoto¬ 
mous ordering of reality is set up as a series of alibis, all designed to 
secure the mastery of his world by a possessive individual. It becomes 
clear that this individual’s freedom qua mastery is predicated on the 
existence of a whole host of quasi-individual actors to whom the task 
of representing the “other” term of the dichotomies may be delegated. 
Thus, if the patriarchal individual is to appear reasonable and impartial, 
there must be an other so placed as to represent nonreasonable and 
partial viewpoints or values; or, indeed, the other represents the 
restrictive and routinized character of a domesticated rationality, and 
the nonreasonable and partial stance is re-framed so as to seem the 
epitome of an untamed (undomesticated) and rugged individualism. 

For another to be so placed they must fall within the possessive individu¬ 
al’s jurisdiction; and, for there to be a normative order which both re¬ 
strains, and secures, possessive individualism, a culture of possessive 
individualism is required which articulates the private jurisdictions of 
possessive individuals within a general structure of modem patriarchalist 
domination. This mode of domination asserts itself as a monovocal and 
monological legal-rational order, one which appears as an impersonal, 
objective, and impartial authority. This appearance is necessary because 
(1) possessive individuals relinquish their private mastery only on condi¬ 
tion that the authority by which they agree to be bound is not that of 
any individual; 5 (2) one term in the dichotomous series of terms must 
subordinate the other term, hence authority is asserted as the reduction of 
opposition and the triumph of one, superordinate value. 



A Feminist Theory of Social Differentiation / 289 


Feminism and Postmodernism 

The modernist perspective contains a fundamental contradiction: the 
individualization of social life, which is developed by the culture of 
possessive individualism, dissolves and deconstructs the monological, 
monovocal structures of divine authority and that authority’s expression 
in kinship and kingship institutions. Instead of a divinely sanctioned, 
consensual moral order, there emerges the decentred world of a plurality 
of individual agents responsible for their own destinies. At the same 
time that this order of individualized agency undermines all religious 
presuppositions and secularizes our reality, the primitive type of individu¬ 
ality involved necessitates that there be a single standard or norm of 
authority which subordinates the plurality of individualized agency, and 
renders it so many distinct versions of this sole authoritative voice. Accord¬ 
ingly, the implications of the modernist discovery of the existence of 
individualized and therefore plural values are contained in the face of the 
necessity to reduce this plurality to a single standard. Even while the idea 
is established by such as Locke, Hume, Herder, Vico, and Weber that it 
is the pragmatics of an individualized agency which lead and orient what 
actors know and value, the necessity for a monovocal and monological 
authority sustains, albeit in secular form, the religious idea of a single 
source, truth, or value. Hence the plurality of individualized agency is 
reduced to, or contained within, the monovocal structures of Geist (Hegel), 
labor (Marx), and utility (Bentham) or, more vulgarly, within the everyday 
constructions of “what every reasonable man knows,” “what all civilized 
men regard as,” and so forth. 

It is postmodernism which has exploded (imploded?) this contradiction 
of modernism by insisting the plurality is not containable or reducible in 
these ways, and by showing how the monovocal, monological structures of 
modem authority have authorized the totalizing tendencies of oppositional 
forms of modernist discourse (scientific socialism, for example). The 
postmodern exploration of the pluralistic implications of a universal cul¬ 
ture of individualized agency has been forced by the mid- and late- 
twentieth-century revolts against the monovocal structures of modem 
patriarchal possessive individualism: the postcolonial movements of self- 
determination; the various expressions of antiracist and multiculturalist 
movements within the metropolitan or, more broadly, “developed” socie¬ 
ties; and, contemporary feminism. All these movements have disrupted 
the dichotomous structure of subject and other which underpinned the 
private property relations of modem patriarchal individualism by disestab¬ 
lishing the “other” as a permissible term. Where status as “other” allowed 
there to be a metonymic relation between the categories of women, chil- 



290 / Anna Yeatman 


dren, savages, natives, and orientals, disestablishment of this status brings 
all the complexity of admitting the extraordinary wealth of diversity which 
all these formerly subsumed as other represent. Moreover it requires their 
participation in constituting their identity (their sense of self, needs, and 
so on) within a universal culture of individualized agency. 

All of this is to make the obvious point, that when the historical task 
is enjoined as one of integrating all those once consigned to the sphere of 
private property into what becomes a universal culture of individualized 
agency, then patriarchalist possessive individualism and its dualistic mode 
of ordering/mastering reality must go. Instead of an individuality qua 
mastery, we have to conceive an individuality which locates its freedom 
in processes and relations which integrate all these dichotomous terms. 
Needless to say, this is an individuality which understands itself in a 
relational way, that is to say, understands the interactional bases of a self- 
concept and the kind of interactional culture necessary to foster and support 
the self-expression and participation of all. 

The project of developing the norms and institutions of a universal 
culture of individualized agency is a coherent project. It is one which 
situates the plurality of individualized agency within a democratic ethic. 
In so doing this project will have to explore dialogical and pluri-vocal 
structures of authority, 6 as it will have to explore participative structures 
and ways of doing things that are much more attentive to what we currently 
call “process.” 

In this respect postmodernism enjoins a new and qualitatively distinct 
stage of democratization. It is this implication of postmodernism which 
feminist theories in the 1980s begin to discover and to celebrate. Strathem 
(1986: 8) argues indeed that “academic feminist scholarship—the way in 
which its many voices are positioned as speaking to one another—has a 
postmodern structure.” 

If postmodernism empowers, as in a sense it is empowered by, feminism 
and feminist-inspired democratic visions, feminist theorists will have to 
give up their own “trained” subscription to modernist perspectives which 
sustain monovocal, monological constructions of authority. As Fraser and 
Nicholson (1989) have argued this means that feminist theorists must 
abandon their own versions of the modernist meta-narratives which have 
inspired the great general theories of modernity. 7 They point out that all 
the general theories of “the” sexual division of labor are modernist, and 
that, as grand narratives, they represent the “blow-ups” of historically 
specific cultural constructions of our own. Thus, Rosaldo’s (1974) justly 
celebrated model (see Yeatman, 1984b) for explaining patriarchal author¬ 
ity as a universal institution generalizes the twentieth-century version of 
the “cult of domesticity” in falsely imputing to all societies a cultural 
binary classification of public (the world of men) and domestic (the 



A Feminist Theory of Social Differentiation / 291 


world of women). Similarly Chodorow (1979), who built on Rosaldo’s 
framework and defined women’s universal gender role in terms of “moth¬ 
ering,” can be viewed as offering a brilliant theory of how mid-twentieth- 
century reproduction of gendered personalities (as either masculine or 
feminine) works in a self-styled modem society, but this is what it is: a 
reflection on the cultural categories structuring gender in her own society. 
“Mothering” and “primary parenting” are distinctively late modem ideas 
and values. They presuppose the development of the idea of childhood, 
and of the construction of “home” as an affectively oriented relational 
setting differentiated from the extra-domestic, and thus public, settings of 
an impersonal market and bureaucratized state. As Fraser and Nicholson 
(1989: 31) remark, Chodorow “is not the only recent feminist social 
theorist who has constructed a quasi-metanarrative around a putatively 
cross-cultural, female-associated activity.” They (1989: 31) continue: 

On the contrary, theorists like Ann Ferguson and Nancy Folbre, Nancy 
Hartsock, and Catherine MacKinnon have built similar theories around 
notions of sex-affective production, reproduction, and sexuality respec¬ 
tively. Each claims to have identified a basic kind of human practice 
found in all societies which has cross-cultural explanatory power. In 
each case, the practice in question is associated with a biological or 
quasi-biological need and is construed as functionally necessary to the 
reproduction of society. . . . 

The difficulty here is that categories like sexuality, mothering, repro¬ 
duction, and sex-affective production group together phenomena which 
are not necessarily conjoined in all societies while separating off from 
one another phenomena which are not necessarily separated. As a 
matter of fact, it is doubtful whether these categories have any determi¬ 
nate cross-cultural content. Thus for a theorist to use such categories 
to construct a universalistic social theory is to risk projecting the socially 
dominant conjunctions and dispersions of her own society onto others, 
thereby distorting important features of both. Social theorists would do 
better first to construct genealogies of the categories of sexuality, 
reproduction, and mothering before assuming their universal signifi¬ 
cance. 

It is important to emphasize that if postmodernism means we have 
to abandon universalistic, general theories and, instead, to explore the 
multivocal worlds of different societies and cultures, this is not the same 
thing as abandoning the political-ethical project of working out the condi¬ 
tions for a universal pragmatics of individualized agency. The very orienta¬ 
tion of postmodernism to the agentic quality and features of our sociocultu¬ 
ral worlds underlines the significance of this political-ethical project. 

It is at this point that feminists, as others who are committed to develop- 



292 / Anna Yeatman 


ing the democratic implications of postmodernism, need to firmly distin¬ 
guish their position from those who take postmodernism to imply an 
anomic relativism. When we examine how relativism is seen to be an 
implication of postmodernism we discover an entirely different agenda, 
which is antifeminist in consequence if not by design. 

It is precisely in the postmodernist spirit that we come to grasp the 
metaphoricality of our world, that is to say, it comes to be revealed as 
constituted by and through specific structures of meaning for which our 
agency is responsible. It is against this backdrop that we come to appreciate 
the metaphoricality of the modernist dichotomies. They lose their erstwhile 
natural appearance and are revealed as factitious, contingent orderings of 
reality. Many have taken the postmodern emphases on agency and the 
plurality of its expressions as underlining the factitious and, in their view, 
arbitrary character of the systems of meaning through which we constitute 
the realities which exist for us. When the quality of factitiousness assumes 
the appearance of arbitrariness it is not because this is a logical conse¬ 
quence of our appreciation that it is by the structures of our agency 
(meaningfully oriented behavior) that we live. There is nothing arbitrary 
about these in the least, as the hermeneutic recovery of them in their 
coherence as a structure of meaning, gestalt, or “discourse” indicates. 
They are arbitrary only as they are evaluated in relation to a nostalgic 
elegy for the erstwhile “essentialist” and “foundationalist” loadstones of 
modernism: reason, progress, science, objectivity, (Western) civilization, 
and so on. 

Here reference to the work of Foucault is instructive. Foucault appears 
the prototypical postmodernist in his construction and deconstruction of 
the modern cultural heritage as a series of discontinuous discursive and 
disciplinary practices. Yet, counterposed to these “discontinuous prac¬ 
tices” of expressed reality (speech, knowledges, and the institutional 
disciplines they constitute) is the nonexpressible ( desir ). This, lying as it 
does outside the historicity of discourses, assumes the status of a natural, 
universal, noumenal order of being. Thus, if Foucault (1987: 127) says 
“there is no prediscursive providence which disposes the world in our 
favor,” he does not move beyond fixation on the loss of this illusion and 
he (1984: 127) is necessarily constrained to see “discourse as a violence 
which we do to things, or in any case as a practice which we impose on 
them.” Shades here of Durkheim’s (1964: 13) formulation of “social facts” 
as “things” which exercise “an external constraint” on “the individual.” 
This position requires Foucault to reduce all claims to legitimation to 
expressions of power and to assume that it is might which constitutes 
right. Democracy, freedom, equality, justice become arraigned as so many 
structures of symbolic expediency which do violence to things (see Wolin, 
1986; and Daraki, 1986). 



A Feminist Theory of Social Differentiation / 293 


Let us be quite clear as to what is going on here. Foucault turns out to 
be thoroughly modernist in his dualistic contra-positioning of “discourses” 
(artifice) and desir (nature). It is his postmodernism which leads him to 
invert the value of the dichotomous terms so that rationalized agency 
comes to assume a discontinuous and contingent status when set against 
both the extra-discursive terrain of desire, and all that is cast in the mold 
of the other by the rationalized discourses of modem society. If his 
postmodernism appears to remove legitimacy from the rationalized dis¬ 
courses of modernity, Foucault rescues the idea of a monovocal and 
monological authority by shielding it within the extra-discursive, noume- 
nal world. Like Durkheim, Foucault is entirely unprepared to surrender 
the monotypical and monovocal qualities of individualized patriarchal 
authority which is located in this terrain that lies beyond the worlds of 
discursive agency (see also Chodorow’s, 1985, critique of left Freudian 
“drive theory”). Put differently, by viewing the sociocultural orders of 
reality as contingent and arbitrary—as “a violence done to things”— 
Foucault achieves an intellectual “deregulation” of the democratically 
oriented culture of individualized agency. When the culture of a self¬ 
reflexive agency, and all its ethical achievements and demands, is relativ¬ 
ized, postmodernist relativism reveals itself as the last-ditch stand of 
modem patriarchy. 

Since it cannot shield itself from the democratic challenges to monotypi¬ 
cal, monological, and mono vocal structures of authority, it evacuates the 
ground of issues of legitimation and converts right into might. This is 
indeed an intellectual deregulation which permits dominant groups to 
maintain their privileges while evading normative debate over them in 
relation to principles of equity, justice, and democracy. Sandra Harding 
(1986: 657), whose article helped me to see this, puts it well: 

It is worth keeping in mind that the articulation of relativism as an 
intellectual position emerges historically only as an attempt to dissolve 
challenges to the legitimacy of purportedly universal beliefs and ways 
of life. It is an objective problem or a solution to a problem, only from 
the perspective of the dominating groups. Reality may indeed appear 
to have many different structures from the perspective of our different 
locations in social relations, but some of those appearances are ideolo¬ 
gies in the strong sense of the term: they are not only false and “inter¬ 
ested” beliefs but also ones that are used to structure social relations 
for the rest of us. For subjugated groups, a relativist stance expresses 
a false consciousness. It accepts the dominant group’s insistence that 
their right to hold distorted views (and, of course, to make policy for 
all of us on the basis of those views) is intellectually legitimate. 

It is inevitable that those whose interests underline the cultural loss 
which postmodernism represents will stress its negative possibilities while 



294 / Anna Yeatman 


those whose interests align them with the democratic promise of postmod¬ 
ernism will emphasize its positive possibilities. Since it is an issue pre¬ 
cisely of interpretation this is a political contest. It is critical that feminists 
join this contest and develop the democratic potential of postmodernism 
while exposing the patriarchalism of relativist de-regulation. If they are 
to do this they will have to forswear their own version of patriarchalist 
nostalgia, namely all feminist essentialist tendencies which function to 
privilege women (taken as an extra-discursive, or given, category) and 
the moral authority (also a monovocal one) which these tendencies accord 
femaleness. There is much less in the maintenance of some form of 
essentialism going for feminism than for patriarchalist reaction: the for¬ 
mer’s interest lies clearly with the maintenance and development of demo¬ 
cratic discourse. It lies also with the coming to light of precisely how 
factitious and historical the whole dualistic modem discourse is. 

Concluding Remarks 

It will be clear that here I have made a decision to opt for the challenges 
of a postmodern feminist theorizing, where the value commitment is to 
developing a post-patriarchal, democratic culture of individualized agency 
or, put differently, to developing universalistic standards of a discursively 
oriented sociality. I have not abandoned sociology: sociology has aban¬ 
doned feminism. However, insofar as postmodern perspectives develop 
out of the contradictions of modernism, I remain thoroughly in debt to the 
inheritance of modem social science. 

But: a feminist theory of social differentiation? I do not think so. A 
systems approach will not work, not at least in harness to feminist values 
and standards of cultural significance. Perforcedly a systems approach 
maintains a monovocal, monotypical, monological orientation to au¬ 
thority. 

The task as I see it is to begin discursive and dialogically oriented modes 
of theorizing. I suspect these have to be tied to modes of intellectual or 
reflective activity which bridge intellectualistic (theoretical) and practical 
modes of working to build a post-patriarchal democratic world. This is true 
of perhaps most feminist theorists, in that they link their intellectualized 
identities to a practical feminist politics, but I mean more than the standard 
homily in favor of the unity of theory and practice. There is something 
peculiar to the conditions of feminist theorizing which MacKinnon (1982: 
543) attempts to grasp by claiming, “Feminism is the first [radical] theory 
to emerge from those whose interest it affirms.” 9 What this suggests, I 
think, is that the normative commitments and theoretical work of feminists 
are tied to something large, something small, quotidian practices on behalf 
of the same values, whether these concern refusing to allow a feminist 



A Feminist Theory of Social Differentiation / 295 


politics to be ghettoized within an academic institution, raising one’s 
children in a dialogical, discursive orientation to authority, or thinking 
carefully about one’s role as a manager with regard to equal opportunity 
and process issues. My point is that we will understand what it means to 
develop discursive and dialogically oriented modes of theorizing only as 
we admit all the people with whom we are connected into trying out and 
evaluating these ideas in relation to current value questions and practical 
issues. 

In this we need to recognize the political contests of postmodernism 
and appreciate that patriarchalist reaction has successfully developed de¬ 
regulation in a number of contexts. De-regulation permits a narcissistic, 
socially unaccountable expression of possessive individualism (see Cho- 
dorow, 1985). It is this which is defining the central and mainstream 
political agendas in Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and the United States 
at the present time. Within these agendas the pluralism of a postmodern 
democratic politics becomes defined as the crisis of “ungovernability” 
or—another favored term—as “pluralistic stagnation” (see Marsh, 1983). 
Those of us who are committed to developing a democratically oriented, 
postmodern, and post-patriarchal “social science” need to appreciate this 
as a cultural guerrilla undertaking, where the abandonment of democratic 
discourse by mainstream “disciplines” and political parties means that it 
can be revitalized by those in whose interests it is to develop a genuinely 
democratized sociality. To do this and to develop our theorizing, it is 
necessary to find ways of effective engagement with a wide variety of 
audiences and networks which, over time, can build sets of discursive 
practices which foster a post-patriarchal, democratic world. 

Notes 

1. I have attempted to specify this post-patriarchal framework of social differen¬ 
tiation more fully in “The Social Differentiation of State, Civil Society and 
Family Life” (see Yeatman, 1986b). 

2. Marilyn Strathem, a feminist social anthropologist with whom I have dia¬ 
logued, has reached similar conclusions to these: see her (1986b) “The Study 
of Gender Relations: A Personal Context.” 

3. As far as 1 am aware we do not have yet a full account of the respective 
places of strategic modem discourses in this synchronic structure. There is, 
however, a literature developing which provides the groundwork for such an 
account. For example, there is the “school” of social-legal analysts who are 
showing the dualistic structures of modem legal thought: see Olsen (1983), 
Kennedy (1982), Horowitz (1982), Klare (1982). There are the beginnings 
of a similar type of exercise with regard to political theory: see Pateman 
(1983), Yeatman (1984a). There are several articles of Strathem (1985, 



296 / Anna Yeatman 


1986a) which indicate her use of both feminism and Melanesian ethnography 
to surface the deep structures of the modernist perspective. Finally, in the 
policy studies areas there are some interesting feminist-influenced challenges 
to the dualism of “social” and “economic” policy (see Dowse, 1983) and the 
dualism of the “realm of the natural” and the “realm of the artificial” (see 
Peattie & Rein, 1983). 

4. This leads, of course, to an “over-socialized” conception of individual agents. 
For some elaboration of this argument, see Yeatman (1986b); and for an 
excellent analysis of how left versions of Freudian social theory have main¬ 
tained an individual-social dichotomy in such a way as to permit the individ¬ 
ual “freedom-from” responsibility for their social connectedness, see Cho- 
dorow (1985). 

5. Once we understand the political culture of possessive individualism, it 
becomes clear that Locke and Rousseau cannot be bettered in their under¬ 
standing of its requirements. Compare Locke’s (1690/1963), The Second 
Treatise, par. 87: 367): “And thus all private judgment of every particular 
Member being excluded, the [“the,” monovocal] Community comes to be 
Umpire, by settled standing Rules, indifferent, and the same to all Parties. 

. . .” with Rousseau’s (1973: 174) conception of the social Contract: “Each 
man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no 
associate over which he does not acquire the same right as he yields others 
over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase 
of force for the preservation of what he has.” 

6. This is beginning to happen in the work of democratic theorists like William 
Connolly (see, e.g., Connolly, 1984). 

7. Fraser and Nicholson draw on Lyotard’s identification of modernism with 
“grand narratives” and they (1989: 22) comment: “The postmodern condition 
is one in which ‘grand narratives’ of legitimation are no longer credible. By 
‘grand narratives’ he [Lyotard] means, in the first instance, overarching 
philosophies of history like the Enlightenment story of the gradual but steady 
progress of reason and freedom, Hegel’s dialectic of the spirit coming to 
know itself, and, most importantly, Marx’s drama of the forward march of 
human productive capacities via class conflict culminating in proletarian 
revolution. . . . The story guarantees that some sciences and some politics 
have the right pragmatics and, so, are the right practices.” 

8. The ambivalence of this (Owens, 1983:58) masculine evaluation of postmod¬ 
ernism is clear: “Pluralism, however, reduces us [whom does he mean?] to 
being an other among others [!]; it is not a recognition, but a reduction to 
difference to absolute indifference, equivalence, interchangeability (what 
Jean Baudrillard calls ‘implosion’). What is at stake, then, is not only the 
hegemony of Western culture, but also (our sense of) our identity as a 
culture.” 

9. MacKinnon’s (1982: 543) passage is both suggestive and elusive: “Feminist 
method is consciousness-raising: the collective critical reconstruction of the 
meaning of women’s social experience, as women live through it. Marxism 



A Feminist Theory of Social Differentiation / 297 


and feminism . . . posit a different relation between thought and thing, both 
in terms of the relationship of the analysis itself to the social life it captures 
and in terms of the participation of the thought in the social life it analyzes. 
To the extent that materialism is scientific it posits and refers to a reality 
outside thought which it considers to have an objective—that is, truly nonso- 
cially perspectival—context. Consciousness-raising, by contrast, inquires 
into an intrinsically social situation, into that mixture of thought and material¬ 
ity which is women’s sexuality in the most generic sense. It approaches its 
world through a process that shares its determination: women’s conscious¬ 
ness, not as individual or subjective ideas, but as collective social being. . . . 
Feminism turns theory itself—the pursuit of a true analysis of social life— 
into the pursuit of consciousness and turns an analysis of inequality into a 
critical embrace of its own determinants. The process is transformative as 
well as perceptive, since thought and thing are inextricable and reciprocally 
constituting of women’s oppression. . . . The pursuit of consciousness be¬ 
comes a form of political practice.” 

References 

Chodorow, N. (1979), The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the 
Sociology of Gender, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California 
Press. 

Chodorow, N. (1985), “Beyond Drive Theory,” Theory and Society, 14:3: 271- 
321. 

Connolly, W. E. (1984), “The Politics of Discourse,” in M. Shapiro (ed.), 
Language and Politics, New York: New York University Press. 

Daraki, M. (1986), “Michael Foucault’s Journey to Greece,” Telos, 67: 87-111. 

Dowse, S. (1983), “The Women’s Movement Fandango with the State: The 
Movement’s Role in Public Policy Since 1972,” in C. Baldock and B. Cass 
(eds.). Women, Social Welfare and the State, Australia, Allen & Unwin. 

Durkheim, E. (1964), The Rules of Sociological Method, New York: The Free 
Press. 

Foster, H. (1983), “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism,” 
in H. Foster (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, 
Washington, Bay Press. 

Foucault, M. (1984), “The Order of Discourse,” in M. Shapiro (ed.). Language 
and Politics, New York: New York University Press. 

Fraser, N., and Nicholson, L. (1989), “Social Criticism without Philosophy: An 
Encounter between Feminism and Postmodernism,” in this book. 

Harding, S. (1986), “The Instability of the Analytical Categories of Feminist 
Theory,” Signs, 11:4,645-65. 

Horowitz, M. H. (1982), “The History of the Public/Private Distinction,” Univer¬ 
sity of Pennsylvania Law Review, vol. 130, 1423-29. 



298 / Anna Yeatman 


Kennedy, D. (1982), “The Stages of the Decline of the Public/Private Distinc¬ 
tion,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review, vol. 130, 1349-58. 

Klare, K. E. (1982), “The Public/Private Distinction in Labor Law,” University 
of Pennsylvania Law Review, vol. 130, 1358-1423. 

Locke, J. (1965), Two Treatises of Government (Laslett edition), New York: 
Mentor. 

MacKinnon, C. A. (1982), “Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An 
Agenda for Theory,” Signs, 7:3, 515—45. 

Macpherson, C. B. (1962), The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, 
Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Olsen, F. G. (1983), "The Family and the Market: A Study of Ideology and Legal 
Reform Harvard Law Review, 96:7, 1497-1579. 

Owens, Craig (1983), “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism,” 
in H. Foster (ed.). The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, 
Washington: Bay Press. 

Parson, T., and Bales, R. F. (1955), Family, Socialization and Interaction 
Process, New York: Free Press. 

Peattie, L., and Rein, M. (1983), Women's Claims: A Study in Political Economy, 
Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Rosaldo, M. (1974), “Women, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview,” in 
M. Rosaldo & L. Lamphere (eds.). Women, Culture, and Society, Stanford: 
Stanford University Press. 

Rousseau, J.-J. (1975), The Social Contract and Discourses, London: Dent. 

Stacey, J., and Thorne, B. (1985), “The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociol¬ 
ogy,” Social Problems, 32: 4, 301-17. 

Strathem, M. (1985), “Dislodging a World View: Challenge and Counter-Chal¬ 
lenge in the Relationship between Feminism and Anthropology,” Australian 
Feminist Studies, 1: 1-15. 

Strathem, M. (1986a), “Out of Context: The Persuasive Fictions of Anthropol¬ 
ogy,” Frazer Lecture, University of Liverpool. 

Strathem, M. (1986b), “The Study of Gender Relations: A Personal Context,” 
prepared for Anthropologie et Societes, issue on “Les rapports hommes- 
femmes,” edited by Deirdre Meintel. 

Weber, M. (1949), The Methodology of the Social Sciences, New York: The Free 
Press. 

Wolin, R. (1986), “Foucault’s Aesthetic Decisionism,” Telos, No. 67, 71-87. 

Yeatman, A. (1984a), “Despotism and Civil Society: The Limits of Patriarchal 
Citizenship,” in J. H. Stiehm (ed.). Women’s Views of the Political World 
of Men, New York: Transnational. 

Yeatman, A. (1984b), “Gender and the Differentiation of Social Life into Public 
and Domestic Domains,” Special Issue Series, Social Analysis (“Gender and 
Social Life,” ed. A. Yeatman) 15: 32-50. 



A Feminist Theory of Social Differentiation / 299 


Yeatman, A. (1986a), “Women, Domestic Life and Sociology,” in C. Pateman 
and E. Gross (eds.), Feminist Challenges: Social and Political Theory, 
Sydney, Allen & Unwin. 

Yeatman, A. (1986b), “The Social Differentiation of State, Civil Society and 
Family Life: A Working Model of Post-Patriarchal Structures of Citizen¬ 
ship,” Paper presented to 1986 Sociological Association of Australian and 
New Zealand Conference, Armidale, New England. 



12 


The Ideal of Community and 
the Politics of Difference 

Iris Marion Young 


Prologue 

The ideal of community, I suggest in this chapter, privileges unity over 
difference, immediacy over mediation, sympathy over recognition of the 
limits of one’s understanding of others from their point of view. Commu¬ 
nity is an understandable dream, expressing a desire for selves that are 
transparent to one another, relationships of mutual identification, social 
closeness and comfort. The dream is understandable, but politically prob¬ 
lematic, I argue, because those motivated by it will tend to suppress 
differences among themselves or implicitly to exclude from their political 
groups persons with whom they do not identify. The vision of small, face- 
to-face, decentralized units that this ideal promotes, moreover, is an 
unrealistic vision for transformative politics in mass urban society. 

I did not write this essay only with feminists in mind. The commitments 
and concerns that motivate it, however, derive in large measure from 
my experience with feminist groups and discussions. On the one hand, 
feminists have been paradigm exponents of the ideal of community I 
criticize. On the other hand, feminist discussions of the importance of 
attending to differences among women are a primary political impetus for 
my seeking to criticize that ideal. 

Dominant strains of feminism have expressed the ideal of community 
I criticize on two levels. First, we have often expected our political 
groups to fulfill our desire for community as against the alienation and 
individualism we find hegemonic in capitalist patriarchal society. Thus, 
we have looked for mutual identification and mutual affirmation in our 
feminist groups, finding conflict or respectful distance suspect. We have 
had understandable reasons for seeking unity and mutual identification in 


I am grateful to David Alexander, Ann Ferguson, Roger Gottlieb, Peter Manicas, Peter 
Onuf, Lucius Outlaw. Michael Ryan, Richard Schmitt, Ruth Smith, Tom Wartenburg, 
and Hugh Wilder for helpful comments on earlier versions of this chapter. 


300 



The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference / 301 


our groups. For most of us, feminism has been more than just a politics, 
it has also been a personal and spiritual quest for self-knowledge and 
cultural affirmation. Insofar as feminist groups have been impelled by a 
desire for closeness and mutual identification, however, our political 
effectiveness may have been limited. Deconstruction, which I rely on in 
this chapter for my critique of community, shows that a desire for unity 
or wholeness in discourse generates borders, dichotomies, and exclusions. 
I suggest that the desire for mutual identification in social relations gener¬ 
ates exclusions in a similar way. A woman in a feminist group that seeks 
to affirm mutual identification will feel and be doubly excluded if by virtue 
of her being different in race, class, culture, or sexuality she does not 
identify with the others nor they with her. A desire for community in 
feminist groups, that is, helps reproduce their homogeneity. 

Second, on a more general level of political vision, feminists have 
developed little in the way of models of political organizing that can serve 
as alternatives to interest group bureaucracy, on the one hand, or the small 
personalized task group, on the other. Despite our critical attention to 
much of the male tradition of political theory, many of us have retained 
uncritically an anarchist, participatory democratic communitarianism to 
express our vision of the ideal society. Indeed, many of us have assumed 
that women and feminists can best realize this ideal, because women’s 
culture is less individualistic and less based in competition than men’s 
culture, and because, we claim, women are psychologically and politically 
more oriented toward care and mutuality. I argue in this chapter that 
conditions of modem urban mass society require conceiving an alternative 
vision of the unoppressive society. 

This alternative must be a politics of difference. Although I derive 
the logical and metaphysical critique of the unity of community from 
postmodernist philosophy, I take the concrete political vision of inexhaust¬ 
ible heterogeneity in large part from feminism. Discussions among us of 
the oppressive implications of assumptions of the unity of women, and 
the importance of attending to the specific differences among women, 
portend the beginnings of a politics beyond community. I imagine the 
political structure and social relations that have evolved in the National 
Women’s Studies Association to offer glimmers of the openness to unas¬ 
similated otherness that in the last section of this chapter I define as a 
norm for the unoppressive city. 

Introduction 

Radical theorists and activists often appeal to an ideal of community as 
an alternative to the oppression and exploitation that they argue, character¬ 
izes capitalist patriarchal society. Such appeals often do not explicitly 



302 / Iris Marion Young 


articulate the meaning of the concept of community but rather tend to 
evoke an affective value. Even more rarely do those who invoke an ideal 
of community as an alternative to capitalist patriarchal society ask what 
it presupposes or implies, or what it means concretely to institute a society 
that embodies community. I raise a number of critical questions about the 
meaning, presuppositions, implications, and practical import of the ideal 
of community. 

As in all conceptual reflections, in this case there is no universally 
shared concept of community, only particular articulations that overlap, 
complement, or sit at acute angles to one another. 1 I will rely on the 
definitions and expositions of a number of writers for examples of concep¬ 
tualizations about community as a political ideal. All these writers share a 
critique of liberal individualist social ontology, and most think democratic 
socialism is the best principle of social organization. I claim acceptance for 
my analysis only within this general field of political discourse, although I 
suspect that much of the conceptual structure I identify applies to an ideal 
of community that might be appealed to by more conservative or liberal 
writers. 

I criticize the notion of community on both philosophical and practical 
grounds. I argue that the ideal of community participates in what Derrida 
calls the metaphysics of presence and Adorno calls the logic of identity, 
a metaphysics that denies difference. The ideal of community presumes 
subjects can understand one another as they understand themselves. It 
thus denies the difference between subjects. The desire for community 
relies on the same desire for social wholeness and identification that 
underlies racism and ethnic chauvinism on the one hand and political 
sectarianism on the other. 

Insofar as the ideal of community entails promoting a model of face- 
to-face relations as best, it devalues and denies difference in the form of 
temporal and spatial distancing. The ideal of a society consisting of 
decentralized face-to-face communities is undesirably utopian in several 
ways. It fails to see that alienation and violence are not only a function 
of mediation of social relations but also can and do exist in face-to-face 
relations. It implausibly proposes a society without the city. It fails to 
address the political question of the relations among face-to-face commu¬ 
nities. 

The ideal of community, finally, totalizes and detemporalizes its con¬ 
ception of social life by setting up an opposition between authentic and 
inauthentic social relations. It also detemporalizes its understanding of 
social change by positing the desired society as the complete negation of 
existing society. It thus provides no understanding of the move from here 
to there that would be rooted in an understanding of the contradictions 
and possibilities of existing society. 



The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference / 303 


I propose that instead of community as the normative ideal of political 
emancipation, that radicals should develop a politics of difference. A 
model of the unoppressive city offers an understanding of social relations 
without domination in which persons live together in relations of mediation 
among strangers with whom they are not in community. 

The Metaphysics of Presence 

Western conceptualization, as expressed both in philosophical writing, 
other theoretical writing, and quite often everyday speech as well, exhibits 
what Derrida calls a logic of identity. 2 This metaphysics consists in a 
desire to think things together in a unity, to formulate a representation of 
a whole, a totality. It seeks the unity of the thinking subject with the object 
thought, that the object would be a grasping of the real. The urge to unity 
seeks to think everything that is a whole or to describe some ontological 
region, such as social life, as a whole, a system. Such totalization need 
not be restricted to synchronic conceptualization, moreover. The concep¬ 
tualization of a process teleologically also exhibits the logic of identity, 
inasmuch as the end conceptually organizes the process into a unity. 

The desire to bring things into unity generates a logic of hierarchical 
opposition. Any move to define an identity, a closed totality, always 
depends on excluding some elements, separating the pure from the impure. 
Bringing particular things under a universal essence, for example, depends 
on determining some attribute of particulars as accidental, lying outside 
the essence. Any definition or category creates an inside/outside distinc¬ 
tion, and the logic of identity seeks to keep those borders firmly drawn. 
In the history of Western thought the metaphysics of presence has created 
a vast number of such mutually exclusive oppositions that structure whole 
philosophies: subject/object; mind/body, culture/nature, male/female. In 
the metaphysical tradition the first of these is elevated over the second 
because it designates the unified, the chaotic, unformed, transforming. 
Metaphysical thinking makes distinctions and formulates accounts by 
relying on such oppositions, where one side designates the pure, authentic, 
good, and the other the impure, inauthentic, bad. 

The logic of identity also seeks to understand the subject, the person, 
as a self-identical unity. Beginning with Descartes, modem philosophy is 
particularly preoccupied with the unity of consciousness and its immediate 
presence to itself. The tradition of transcendental philosophy from Des¬ 
cartes through Kant to Husserl conceives the subject as a unity and 
an origin, the self-same starting point of thought and meaning, whose 
signification is never out of its grasp. 

There are two sorts of criticisms Derrida, Adorno, Kristeva, and others 
make of the metaphysics of presence. First, its effort to bring things into 



304 / Iris Marion Young 


unity is doomed to failure. The claim to totality asserted by this metaphys¬ 
ics is incoherent, because, as I have already discussed, the process of 
totalizing itself expels some aspects of the entities. Some of the experi¬ 
enced particulars are expelled to an unaccounted-for, “accidental” realm, 
what Derrida calls the supplement and Adorno calls the addendum. The 
move to create totality, as the logic of hierarchical opposition shows, 
creates not one, but two: inside and outside. The identity or essence sought 
receives its meaning and purity only by its relation to its outside. What 
Derrida calls the method of deconstruction consists in showing how with a 
concept or category what it claims to exclude is implicated in it. Dialectical 
logic, of course, makes a similar claim. The method of deconstruction, 
or what Adorno calls negative dialectic, however, rejects the Hegelian 
method of dialectic. For Hegelian dialectic is the ultimate totalizer, bring¬ 
ing the oppositions generated by metaphysical logic into ultimate unity 
within a totality. 

Second, the metaphysics of presence represses or denies difference. 
This term has come to carry a great deal of meaning in these philosophical 
accounts. As I understand it, difference means the irreducible particularity 
of entities, which makes it impossible to reduce them to commonness or 
bring them into unity without remainder. Such particularity derives from 
the contextuality of existence, the being of a thing and what is said about 
it is a function of its contextual relation to other things. Adorno in particular 
contrasts the logic of identity with entities in their particularity, which for 
him also means their materiality. Idealism, which Adorno thinks exhibits 
the logic of identity, withdraws from such particularity and constructs 
unreal essences. 1 

Derrida defines difference primarily in terms of the functioning of 
language, expressing the irreducible spatiotemporality of language. The 
sign signifies, has meaning, by its place in the chain of signs, by differing 
from other signs. Any moment of signification also defers, holds in 
abeyance, any completion of its meaning. Any utterance has a multiplicity 
of meanings and directions of interpretation and development in which it 
can be taken. For Derrida, the metaphysics of presence seeks to detempora- 
lize and despatialize this signifying process, inventing the illusion of pure 
present meaning which eliminates the referential relation. This is idealism: 
conceiving the being and truth of things as lying outside time and change. 4 

Kristeva more often uses the term heterogeneity than difference, but 
like Derrida and Adorno she suggests that a logic of identity represses 
heterogeneity, which she associates with the body as well as language. 
She too focuses on language and the process of signification, especially 
the speaking subject. The subject is never a unity, but always in process, 
for Kristeva, producing meaning through the play between the literal and 
figurative, representational and musical aspects that any speech simultane¬ 
ously carries. 5 



The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference / 305 


Along with such writers as Anthony Giddens and Fred Dallmayr, I 
think the critique of the metaphysics of presence and the claim that we need 
to attend to the irreducibility of difference have important implications for 
social philosophy and social theory. 6 1 will argue that the ideal of commu¬ 
nity exhibits the desire for unity these writers find in the metaphysics of 
presence. Community usually appears as one side of a dichotomy in which 
individualism is the opposite pole, but as with any such opposition, each 
side is determined by its relation to the other. I argue that the ideal of 
community exhibits a totalizing impulse and denies difference in two 
primary ways. First, it denies the difference within and between subjects. 
Second, in privileging face-to-face relations it seeks a model of social 
relations that are not mediated by space and time distancing. In radically 
opposing the inauthentic social relations of alienated society with the 
authentic social relations of community, moreover, it detemporalizes the 
process of social change into a static before and after structure. 

The Opposition between Individualism and Community 

Critics of liberalism frequently invoke a conception of community to 
project an alternative to the individualism and abstract formalism they 
attribute to liberalism. 7 This alternative social ontology rejects the image 
of persons as separate and self-contained atoms, each with the same formal 
rights, the rights to keep others out, separate. In the idea of community, 
critics of liberalism find a social ontology which sees the attributes of a 
person as coeval with the society in which he or she lives. 

For such writers, the ideal of community evokes the absence of the self- 
interested competitiveness of modem society. In this ideal of community, 
critics of liberalism find an alternative to the abstract, formal methodology 
of liberalism. Existing in community with others entails more than merely 
respecting their rights, but rather attending to and sharing in the particular¬ 
ity of their needs and interests. 

For example, in his critique of Rawls, Michael Sandel argues that 
liberalism’s emphasis on the primacy of justice presupposes a self as an 
antecedent unity existing prior to its desires and goals, whole unto itself, 
separated and bounded. This is an unreal and incoherent conception of 
the self, he argues, better replaced by a constitutive conception of self as 
the product of an identity it shares with others, all of whom mutually 
understand and affirm one another. This constitutive conception of self is 
expressed by the concept of community. 

And insofar as our constitutive self-understandings comprehend a wider 
subject than the individual alone, whether a family or a tribe or a city 
or class or nation or people, to this extent they define a community in 
the constitutive sense. And what marks such a community is not merely 



306 / Iris Marion Young 


a spirit of benevolence, or the prevalence of communitarian values, or 
even certain ‘shared final ends’ alone, but a common vocabulary of 
discourse and a background of implicit practices and understandings 
within which the opacity of persons is reduced if never finally dissolved. 
Insofar as justice depends for its pre-eminence on the separatedness 
and boundedness of persons in the cognitive sense, its priority would 
diminish as that opacity faded and those community values deepened. 8 


In contemporary political discussion, for the most part, the ideal of 
community arises in this way as a response to the individualism perceived 
as the prevailing theoretical position, and the alienation and fragmentation 
perceived as the prevailing condition of society. Community appears, that 
is, as part of an opposition, individualism/community, separated self/ 
shared self. In this opposition each term comes to be defined by its negative 
relation to the other, thus existing in a logical dependency. I suggest that 
this opposition, however, is integral to modem political theory and is not 
an alternative to it. 

The opposition individualism/community receives one of its expressions 
in bourgeois culture in the opposition between masculinity and femininity. 
The culture identifies masculinity with the values associated with individu¬ 
alism—self-sufficiency, competition, separation, the formal equality of 
rights. The culture identifies femininity, on the other hand, with the values 
associated with community-affective relations of care, mutual aid, and 
cooperation. 

Carol Gilligan has recently posed this opposition between masculine 
and feminine in terms of the opposition between two orientations on moral 
reasoning. 9 The “ethic of rights” that Gilligan takes to be typical of 
masculine thinking emphasizes the separation of selves and the sense of 
fair play necessary to mediate the competition among such separated 
selves. The “ethic of care,” on the other hand, which she takes to be 
typical of feminine thinking, emphasizes relatedness among persons and 
is an ethic of sympathy and affective attention to particular needs, rather 
than formal measuring of each according to universal rules. This ethic of 
care expresses the relatedness of the ideal of community as opposed to 
the atomistic formalism of liberal individualism. 

The opposition between individualism and community, then, is homolo¬ 
gous with and often implies the opposition masculine/feminine, public/ 
private, calculative/affective, instrumental/aesthetic, which are also pres¬ 
ent in modem political thinking. 10 This thinking has always valued the 
first side of these oppositions more highly than the second, and it has 
provided them with a dominant institutional expression in the society. For 
that reason asserting the value of community over individualism, the 
feminine over the masculine, the aesthetic over the instrumental, the 



The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference / 307 


relational over the competitive, does have some critical force with respect 
to the dominant ideology and social relations. The oppositions themselves, 
however, arise from and belong to bourgeois culture, and for that reason 
merely reversing their valuation does not constitute a genuine alternative 
to capitalist patriarchal society. 

Like most such oppositions, moreover, individualism and community 
have a common logic underlying their polarity, which makes it possible 
for them to define each other negatively. Each entails a denial of difference 
and desire to bring multiplicity and heterogeneity into unity, although in 
opposing ways. Liberal individualism denies difference by positing the 
self as a solid, self-sufficient unity, not defined by or in need of anything 
or anyone other than itself. Its formalistic ethic of rights denies difference 
by leveling all such separated individuals under a common measure of 
rights. Community, on the other hand, denies difference by positing fusion 
rather than separation as the social ideal. Community proponents conceive 
the social subject as a relation of unity composed by identification and 
symmetry among individuals within a totality. As Sandel puts it, the 
opacity of persons tends to dissolve as ends, vocabulary, and practices 
become identical. This represents an urge to see persons in unity with 
each other in a shared whole. 

As is the case with many dichotomies, in this one the possibilities for 
social ontology and social relations appear to be exhausted in the two 
categories. For many writers, the rejection of individualism logically 
entails asserting community, and conversely any rejection of community 
entails that one necessarily supports individualism. In their discussion of 
the debate between Elshtain and Ehrenreich, for example, Sara Evans and 
Harry Boyte claim that Ehrenreich promotes individualism because she 
rejects the appeal to community that Elshtain makes." The possibility that 
there could be other conceptions of social organization does not appear 
because all possibilities have been reduced to the mutually exclusive 
opposition between individualism and community. 

Ultimately, however, for most radical theorists the hard opposition of 
individualism and community breaks down. Unlike reactionary appeals 
to community which consistently assert the subordination of individual 
aims and values to the collective, most radical theorists assert that commu¬ 
nity itself consists in the respect for and fulfillment of individual aims and 
capacities. The neat distinction between individualism and community 
thus generates a dialectic in which each is a condition for the other. 

Denying Difference within and between Subjects 

In her interpretation of Marx’s ontology, Carol Gould formulates such 
a dialectical conception of community as the transcended synthesis of 



308 / Iris Marion Young 


sociality and individuality. This ideal society of the future is realized as 
the third stage of process of social evolution. The first stage is a communal 
society in which the individual is subjected to the collective, and the 
second is the individualist society of capitalist alienation. 

The separate subjects who are related to each other only as objects, 
namely, as beings for another, now recognize themselves in these 
objects, or recognize these objects as like themselves. Therefore they 
recognize each other as subjects, and the unity between subjects and 
objects is reestablished in this recognition. The subjects are then related 
to each other not as alien external others, but as aspects of a common 
species subject. The relations are therefore internal, since they are the 
interrelations within this common or communal subject which is now 
no longer made up of discrete individuals in external relations, but 
rather of individuals who are unified in their common subjectivity. . . . 

The subjects are therefore mutually interdependent and the relations 
between them are internal because each subject is what it is—a sub¬ 
ject—through its relation to the other, namely, through being recog¬ 
nized as a subject by the other. These individuals therefore form a 
communal but differentiated subject that expresses itself in and through 
each individual. The whole or unity that is reconstituted in these internal 
relations among the individuals is thus mediated or differentiated by 
their individuality, but unified by their commonality. 12 

According to Derrida, dialectical logic represses difference not by 
bringing multiplicity under a simple universal but by putting closure on 
the process of exteriorization. This closure emerges in the concept of a 
whole or totality within which opposites, differences, are reconciled and 
balanced. 1 ' Like many other expressions of this ideal of community, 
Gould’s conception of community works on and through a totalizing desire 
to reconcile the differences of subjects. 

The communitarian ideal participates in the metaphysics of presence 
because it conceives that subjects no longer need be exterior to one 
another. They need no longer outrun one another in directions they do 
not mutually understand and affirm. The ideal, moreover, extends this 
mutuality to its conception of the good society as a telos, an end to the 
conflict and violence of human interaction. Community here is conceived 
as a totality in two ways. It has no ontological exterior, since it realizes 
the unity of general will and individual subjectivity. It also has no historical 
exterior, for there is no further stage to travel. 

While she does not specifically speak of her ideal as community, Seyla 
Benhabib expresses a similar ideal of person relating to one another 
through reciprocal recognition of subjectivities as a particular standpoint 
of moral autonomy. Liberalism holds a conception of moral autonomy. 



The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference / 309 


what she calls the “standpoint of the generalized other,” which abstracts 
from the difference, desires and feeling among persons, to regard all as 
sharing a common set of formal rights and duties. In contrast, what 
Benhabib calls the “standpoint of the concrete other” views each person 
in his or her concrete individuality. 

In assuming this standpoint, we abstract from what continues our com¬ 
monality and seek to understand the other as he/she understands himself/ 
herself. We seek to comprehend the needs of the other, their motiva¬ 
tions, what they search for and what they desire. Our relation to the 
other is governed by the norm of complementary reciprocity: each is 
entitled to expect and assume from the other forms of behavior through 
which the other feels recognized and confirmed as a concrete, individual 
being with specific needs, talents and capacities. Our differences in this 
case complement rather than exclude one another. 14 

Benhabib’s notion of the standpoint of the concrete other expresses 
community as the mutual and reciprocal understanding of persons, relating 
internally, as Gould puts it, rather than externally. Many other writers 
express a similar ideal of relating to other persons internally, understanding 
them from their point of view. In the quotation previously cited, Sandel 
poses the elimination of the opacity of other persons as the ideal for 
community. Isaac Balbus represents the goal of radical politics and the 
establishment of community as the overcoming of the “otherness” of 
other in reciprocal recognition. 15 Roberto Unger articulates the ideal of 
community as the political alternative to personal love. In community 
persons relate to one another as concrete individuals who recognize them¬ 
selves in each other because they have shared purposes. The conflict 
between the demands of individuality and the demands of sociability 
disappears in mutual sympathy. 16 Dorothy Allison proposes an ideal of 
community for feminists that is characterized by a “shared feeling of 
belonging and merging,” with an “ecstatic sense of oneness.” 17 

All these formulations seek to understand community as a unification 
of particular persons through the sharing of subjectivities: Persons will 
cease to be opaque, other, not understood, and instead become fused, 
mutually sympathetic, understanding one another as they understand them¬ 
selves. Such an ideal of shared subjectivity, or the transparency of subjects 
to one another, denies difference in the sense of the basic asymmetry of 
subjects. As Hegel first brought to focus and Sartre’s analysis deepened, 
persons necessarily transcend each other because subjectivity is negativity. 
The regard of the other upon me is always objectifying. Other persons 
never see the world from my perspective, and I am always faced with an 
experience of myself I do not have in witnessing the other’s objective 
grasp of my body, actions, and words. 



310 / Iris Marion Young 


This mutual intersubjective transcendence, of course, makes sharing 
between us possible, a fact that Sartre notices less than Hegel. The sharing, 
however, is never complete mutual understanding and reciprocity. Shar¬ 
ing, moreover, is fragile. The other person may at the next moment 
understand my words differently from the way I meant them or carry my 
actions to consequences I do not intend. The same difference that makes 
sharing between us possible also makes misunderstanding, rejection, with¬ 
drawal, and conflict always possible conditions of social being. 

The notion that each person can understand the other as he or she 
understands himself or herself, moreover, that persons can know other 
subjects in their concrete needs and desires, presupposes that a subject 
can know himself or herself and express that knowledge accurately and 
unambiguously to others. Such a concept of self-knowledge retains the 
Cartesian understanding of subjectivity basic to the modern metaphysics 
of presence. The idea of the self as a unified subject of desire and need 
and an origin of assertion and action has been powerfully called into 
question by contemporary philosophers. 18 I will rely on my reading of 
Julia Kristeva. 

Without elaborating the linguistic detail in which she couches her 
notion of the subject-in-process, I will summarize briefly the general idea. 
Kristeva relies on a psychoanalytic notion of the unconscious to assert 
that subjectivity is heterogeneous and decentered. Consciousness, mean¬ 
ing, and intention are only possible because the subject-in-process slips 
and surpasses its intentions and meanings. Any utterance, for example, 
not only has a literal meaning, but is laden with ambiguities, embodied 
in gesture, tone of voice, and rhythm that all contribute to the heterogeneity 
of its meaning without being intended. So it is with actions and interactions 
with other persons. What I say and do always has a multiplicity of 
meanings, ambiguities, plays, and these are not always coherent. 19 

Because the subject is not a unity, it cannot be present to itself and 
know itself. 1 do not always know what I mean, need, want, desire, 
because these do not arise from some ego as origin. Often I express my 
desire in gesture or tone of voice, without meaning to do so. Conscious¬ 
ness, speech, expressiveness are possible only if the subject always sur¬ 
passes itself and is thus necessarily unable to comprehend itself. Subjects 
all have multiple desires that do not cohere; they attach layers of meanings 
to objects without always being aware of each layer or their connections. 
Consequently, any individual subject is a play of differences that cannot 
be comprehended. 

If the subject is heterogeneous process, unable to be present to itself, 
then it follows that subjects cannot make themselves transparent, wholly 
present to one another. If each subject escapes its own comprehension and 
for that reason cannot fully express to another its needs and desires, 



The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference / 311 


then necessarily each subject also escapes sympathetic comprehension by 
others. I cannot understand another as he or she understands himself or 
herself, because he or she does not completely understand himself or 
herself. Indeed, because other people’s expression to me may outrun their 
own awareness or intention, I may understand certain aspects of them 
more fully than they. 

Gould appeals to such an ideal of “common subjectivity” as an alterna¬ 
tive to the commodification of persons she finds characteristic of capitalist 
domination. Her conceptualization suggests that only if persons under¬ 
stood one another “internally,” as she puts it, would such domination be 
eliminated. While I certainly do not wish to deny that current social 
relations are full of domination and exploitation, conceiving the elimina¬ 
tion of these conditions in terms of an impossible ideal of shared subjectiv¬ 
ity can tend to deflect attention from more concrete analysis of the condi¬ 
tions of their elimination. 

Not only does this ideal of shared subjectivity express an impossibility, 
but it has undesirable political implications. Political theorists and activists 
should distrust this desire for reciprocal recognition and identification with 
others, I suggest, because it denies difference in the concrete sense of 
making it difficult for people to respect those with whom they do not 
identify. I suggest that the desire for mutual understanding and reciprocity 
underlying the ideal of community is similar to the desire for identification 
that underlies racial and ethnic chauvinism. 

In ordinary speech for most people in the United States, the term 
community refers to the people with whom I identify in a locale. It refers 
to neighborhood, church, school. It also carries connotations of ethnicity 
or race. For most people in the United States, insofar as they consider 
themselves members of communities at all, a community is a group that 
shares a specific heritage, a common self-identification, a common culture 
and set of norms. In the United States today, identification as a member 
of such a community also often occurs as an oppositional differentiation 
from other groups, who are feared or at best devalued. Persons identify 
only with some other persons, feel in community only with those, and 
fear the difference others confront them with because they identify with 
a different culture, history, and point of view on the world. 

Racism, ethnic chauvinism, and class devaluation, I suggest, grow 
partly from a desire for community, that is, from the desire to understand 
others as they understand themselves and from the desire to be understood 
as I understand myself. Practically speaking, such mutual understanding 
can be approximated only within a homogeneous group that defines itself 
by common attributes. Such common identification, however, entails 
reference also to those excluded. 20 In the dynamics of racism and ethnic 
chauvinism in the United States today, the positive identification of some 



312 / Iris Marion Young 


groups is often achieved by first defining other groups as the other, the 
devalued semihuman. 1 do not claim that appeal to the ideal of community 
is itself racist. Rather, my claim is that such appeals, within the context 
of a racist and chauvinistic society, can validate the impulses that repro¬ 
duce racist and ethnically chauvinistic identification. 

The striving for mutual identification and shared understanding among 
those who seek to foster a radical and progressive politics, moreover, can 
and has led to denying or suppressing differences within political groups 
or movements. Many feminist groups, for example, have sought to foster 
relations of equality and reciprocity of understanding in such a way that 
disagreement, difference, and deviation have been interpreted as a breech 
of sisterhood, the destruction of personal relatedness and community. 
There has often been strong pressure within women’s groups for members 
to share the same understanding of the world and the same lifestyle, in 
addition to distributing tasks equally and rotating leadership. Such pressure 
has often led to group and even more movement homogeneity—primarily 
straight, or primarily lesbian, or primarily white, or primarily academic.' 1 
In recent years feminists, perhaps more seriously than other progressive 
political groups, have discussed how their organizations and movement 
might become more heterogeneous and recognize difference. A continuing 
desire for mutual identification and reciprocity, however, hampers the 
implementation of a principled call for heterogeneity. 

In a racist, sexist, homophobic society that has despised and devalued 
certain groups, it is necessary and desirable for members of those groups 
to adhere with one another and celebrate a common culture, heritage, and 
experience. Even with such separatist movements, however, too strong a 
desire for unity can lead to repressing the differences within the group or 
forcing some out: gays and lesbians from black; nationalist groups, for 
example, or feminists from Native American groups, and so on. 

Many other progressive political organizations and movements founder 
on the same desire for community. Too often people in political groups 
take mutual friendship to be a goal of the group and thus find themselves 
wanting as a group when they do not achieve such commonality. 22 Such 
a desire for community often channels energy away from the political 
goals of the group and also produces a clique atmosphere which keeps 
groups small and turns potential members away. A more acceptable poli¬ 
tics would acknowledge that members of an organization do not understand 
one another as they understand themselves and would accept this distance 
without closing it into exclusion. 

Denial of Difference as Time and Space Distancing 

Many political theorists who put forward an ideal of community specify 
small-group, face-to-face relations as essential to the realization of that 



The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference / 313 


ideal. Peter Manicas expresses a version of the ideal of community that 
includes this face-to-face specification. 

Consider an association in which persons are in face-to-face contact, 
but where the relations of persons are not mediated by “authorities,” 
sanctified rules, reified bureaucracies or commodities. Each is prepared 
to absorb the attitudes, reasoning and ideas of others and each is in a 
position to do so. Their relations, thus, are open, immediate and recipro¬ 
cal. Further, the total conditions of their social lives are to be conjointly 
determined with each having an equal voice and equal power. When 
these conditions are satisfied and when as a result, the consequences 
and fruits of their associated and independent activities are perceived 
and consciously become an object of individual desire and effort, then 
there is a democratic community.” 

Roberto Unger argues that community requires face-to-face interaction 
among members within a plurality of contexts. To understand other people 
and to be understood by them in our concrete individuality, we must not 
only work together but play together, take care of children together, grieve 
together, and so on. 24 Christian Bay envisions the good society as founded 
upon small face-to-face communities of direct democracy and many-sided 
interaction. 25 Michael Taylor specifies that in a community, relations 
among members must be direct and many-sided. Like Manicas, he asserts 
that relations are direct only when they are unmediated by representatives, 
leaders, bureaucrats, state institutions, or codes. 2fi While Gould does not 
specify face-to-face relations as necessary, some of her language suggests 
that community can only be realized in such face-to-face relations. In the 
institutionalization of democratic socialism, she says, “social combination 
now becomes the immediate subjective relations of mutuality among 
individuals. The relations, again become personal relations as in the pre¬ 
capitalist stage, but no longer relations of domination and no longer 
mediated, as in the second stage, by external objects.” 27 

I take there to be several problems with the privileging of face-to-face 
relations by theorists of community. It presumes an illusory ideal of 
unmediated social relations and wrongly identifies mediation with alien¬ 
ation. It denies difference in the sense of time and space distancing. It 
implies a model of the good society as consisting of decentralized small 
units, which is both unrealistic and politically undesirable. Finally, it 
avoids the political question of the relation among the decentralized com¬ 
munities. 

All the writers cited previously give primacy to face-to-face presence 
because they claim that only under those conditions can the social relations 
be immediate. I understand them to mean several things by social relations 
that are immediate. They are direct, personal relations, in which each 



314 / Iris Marion Young 


understands the other in her or his individuality. This is an extension of 
the ideal of mutual understanding I have criticized in the previous section. 
Immediacy also here means relations of co-presence in which persons 
experience a simultaneity of speaking and hearing and are in the same 
space, that is, have the possibility to move close enough to touch. 28 

This ideal of the immediate presence of subjects to one another, how¬ 
ever, is a metaphysical illusion. Even a face-to-face relation between two 
people is mediated by voice and gesture, spacing and temporality. As 
soon as a third person enters the interaction, the possibility arises of the 
relation between the first two being mediated through the third, and so 
on. The mediation of relations among persons by speech and actions of 
still other persons is a fundamental condition of sociality. The richness, 
creativity, diversity, and potential of a society expand with growth in the 
scope and means of its media, linking persons across time and distance. 
The greater the time and distance, however, the greater the number of 
persons who stand between other persons. 

The normative privileging of face-to-face relations in the ideal of com¬ 
munity seeks to suppress difference in the sense of the time and space 
distancing of social processes, which material media facilitate and enlarge. 
Such an ideal dematerializes its conception of interaction and institutions. 
For all social interaction takes place over time and across space. Social 
desire consists in the urge to carry meaning, agency, and the effects of 
agency beyond the moment and beyond the place. As laboring subjects 
we separate the moment of production from the moment of consumption. 
Even societies confined to a limited territory with few institutions and a 
small population devise means of their members communicating with one 
another over distances, means of maintaining their social relationships 
even though they are not face to face. Societies occupy wider and wider 
territorial fields and increasingly differentiate their activity in space, time, 
and function, a movement that, of course, accelerates and takes on qualita¬ 
tively specific form in modem industrial societies. 29 

I suggest that there are no conceptual grounds for considering face-to- 
face relations more pure, authentic social relations than relations mediated 
across time and distance. For both face-to-face and non-face-to-face rela¬ 
tions are mediated relations, and in both there is as much the possibility 
of separation and violence as there is communication and consensus. 
Theorists of community are inclined to privilege face-to-face relations, I 
suggest, because they wrongly identify mediation and alienation. 

By alienation, I mean a situation in which persons do not have control 
either over their actions, the conditions of their action, or the consequences 
of their action, due to the intervention of other agents. 30 Social mediation 
is £ condition for the possibility of alienation in this sense; media make 
possible the intervention of agents between the conditions of a subject’s 



The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference / 315 


action and the action or between a subject’s action and its consequences. 
Thus, media make domination and exploitation possible. In modem soci¬ 
ety the primary structures creating alienation and domination are bureau¬ 
cracy and commodification of all aspects of human activity, including and 
especially labor. Both bureaucracy and commodification of social relations 
depend on complex structures of mediation among a large number of 
persons. 

That mediation is a necessary condition of alienation, however, does 
not entail the reverse implication: That only by eliminating structures of 
mediation do we eliminate alienation. If temporal and spatial distancing 
are basic to social processes, and if persons always mediate between other 
persons to generate social networks, then a society of immediacy is 
impossible. While mediation may be a necessary condition for alienation, 
it is not sufficient. Alienation is that specific process of mediation in which 
the actions of some serve the ends of others without reciprocation and 
without being explicit, and this requires coercion and domination. 

By positing a society of immediate face-to-face relations as ideal, 
community theorists generate a dichotomy between the “authentic” society 
of the future and the “inauthentic” society we live in, which is character¬ 
ized only by alienation, bureaucratization, and degradation. Such a dichot- 
omization between the inauthentic society we have and the authentic 
society of community, however, detemporalizes our understanding of 
social change. On this understanding, social change and revolution consist 
in the complete negation of this society and the establishment of the truly 
good society. In her scheme of social evolution, Gould conceives of “the 
society of the future” as the negated sublation of capitalist society. This 
understands history not as temporal process but as divided into two static 
structures: the before of alienated society and the after of community. 

The projection of the ideal of community as the radical other of existing 
society denies difference in the sense of the contradictions and ambiguities 
of social life. Instead of dichotomizing the pure and the impure into two 
stages of history or two kinds of social relations, a liberating politics 
should conceive the social process in which we move as a multiplicity 
of actions and structures which cohere and contradict, some of them 
exploitative and some of them liberating. The polarization between the 
impure, inauthentic society we live in and the pure, authentic society we 
seek to institute detemporalizes the process of change because it fails to 
articulate how we move from one to the other. If institutional change is 
possible at all, it must begin from intervening in the contradictions and 
tensions of existing society. No telos of the final society exists, moreover; 
society understood as a moving and contradictory process implies that 
change for the better is always possible and always necessary. 

The requirement that genuine community embody face-to-face rela- 



316 / Iris Marion Young 


tions, when taken as a model of the good society, carries a specific vision 
of social organization. Since the ideal of community demands that relations 
between members be direct and many-sided, the ideal society is composed 
of small locales, populated by a small enough number of persons so that 
each can be personally acquainted with all the others. For most writers, 
this implies that the ideal social organization is decentralized, with small- 
scale industry and local markets. Each community aims for economic self- 
sufficiency, and each democratically makes its own decisions about how 
to organize its working and playing life. 

I do not doubt the desirability of small groups in which individuals have 
personal acquaintance with one another and interact in a plurality of 
contexts. Just as the intimacy of living with a few others in the same 
household has unique dimensions that are humanly valuable, so existing 
with others in communities of mutual friendship has specific characteristics 
of warmth and sharing that are humanly valuable. Furthermore, there is 
no question that capitalist patriarchal society discourages and destroys 
such communities of mutual friendship, just as it squeezes and fragments 
families. In our vision of the good society, we surely wish to include 
institutional arrangements that would nurture the specific experience of 
mutual friendship, which only relatively small groups interacting in a 
plurality of contexts can produce. Recognizing the specific value of such 
face-to-face relations, however, is quite a different matter from proposing 
them as the organizing principle of a whole society. 

Such a model of the good society as composed of decentralized, eco¬ 
nomically self-sufficient, face-to-face communities functioning as autono¬ 
mous political entities is both wildly utopian and undesirable. To bring it 
into being would require dismantling the urban character of modem soci¬ 
ety, a gargantuan physical overhaul of living space, work places, places 
of trade and commerce. A model of a transformed better society must in 
some concrete sense begin from the concrete material structures that are 
given to us at this time in history, and in the United States these are large- 
scale industry and urban centers. The model of society composed of small 
communities is not desirable, at least in the eyes of many. If we take 
seriously the way many people live their lives today, it appears that people 
enjoy cities, that is, places where strangers are thrown together. 

One final problem arises from the model of face-to-face community 
taken as a political goal. The model of the good society as usually articu¬ 
lated leaves completely unaddressed the question of how such small 
communities are to relate to one another. Frequently, the ideal projects a 
level of self-sufficiency and decentralization which suggests that propo¬ 
nents envision few relations among the decentralized communities except 
those of friendly visits. But surely it is unrealistic to assume that such 
decentralized communities need not engage in extensive relations of ex- 



The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference / 317 


change of resources, goods, and culture. Even if one accepts the notion 
that a radical restructuring of society in the direction of a just and humane 
society entails people living in small democratically organized units of 
work and neighborhood, this has not addressed the important political 
question: How will the relations among these communities be organized 
so as to foster justice and prevent domination? When we raise this political 
question the philosophical and practical importance of mediation re- 
emerges. Once again, politics must be conceived as a relationship of 
strangers who do not understand one another in a subjective and immediate 
sense, relating across time and distance. 

City Life and the Politics of Difference 

I have claimed that radical politics must begin from historical givens 
and conceive radical change not as the negation of the given but rather as 
making something good from many elements of the given. The city, as a 
vastly populated area with large-scale industry and places of mass assem¬ 
bly, is for us a historical given, and radical politics must begin from the 
existence of modem urban life. The material surroundings and structures 
available to us define and presuppose urban relationships. The very size 
of populations in our society and most other nations of the world, coupled 
with a continuing sense of national or ethnic identity with millions of other 
people, all support the conclusion that a vision of dismantling the city is 
hopelessly utopian. 

Starting from the given of modem urban life is not simply necessary, 
moreover, it is desirable. Even for many of those who decry the alienation, 
massification, and bureaucratization of capitalist patriarchal society, city 
life exerts a powerful attraction.* Modem literature, art, and film have 
celebrated city life, its energy, cultural diversity, technological complex¬ 
ity, and the multiplicity of its activities. Even many of the most staunch 
proponents of decentralized community love to show visiting friends 
around the Boston or San Francisco or New York in which they live, 
climbing up towers to see the glitter of lights and sampling the fare at the 
best ethnic restaurants. For many people deemed deviant in the closeness 
of the face-to-face community in which they lived, whether “independent” 
women or socialists or gay men and lesbians, the city has often offered 
a welcome anonymity and some measure of freedom. 31 To be sure, the 
liberatory possibilities of capitalist cities have been fraught with ambi¬ 
guity. 

Yet, I suggest that instead of the ideal of community, we begin from 
our positive experience of city life to form a vision of the good society. 
Our political ideal is the unoppressive city. In sketching this ideal, I 
assume some material premises. We will assume a productivity level in 



318 / Iris Marion Young 


the society that can meet everyone’s needs, and a physical urban environ¬ 
ment that is cleaned up and renovated. We will assume, too, that everyone 
who can work has meaningful work and those who cannot are provided 
for with dignity. In sketching this ideal of city life, I am concerned to 
describe the city as a kind of relationship of people to one another, to their 
own history and one another’s history. Thus, by “city” I am not referring 
only to those huge metropolises that we call cities in the United States. 
The kinds of relationship I describe obtain also ideally in those places we 
call towns, where perhaps 10,000 or 20,000 people live. 

As a process of people’s relating to one another, city life embodies 
difference in all the senses I have discussed in this chapter. The city 
obviously exhibits the temporal and spatial distancing and differentiation 
that I have argued, the ideal of community seeks to collapse. On the face 
of the city environment lies its history and the history of the individuals 
and groups that have dwelt within it. Such physical historicity, as well as 
the functions and groups that live in the city at any given time, create its 
spatial differentiation. The city as a network and sedimentation of dis¬ 
cretely understood places, such as particular buildings, parks, neighbor¬ 
hoods, and as a physical environment offers changes and surprises in 
transition from one place to another. 

The temporal and spatial differentiation that mark the physical environ¬ 
ment of the city produce an experience of aesthetic inexhaustibility. Build¬ 
ings, squares, the twists and turns of streets and alleys offer an inexhaust¬ 
ible store of individual spaces and things, each with unique aesthetic 
characteristics. The juxtaposition of incongruous styles and functions that 
usually emerge after a long time in city places contribute to this pleasure 
in detail and surprise. This is an experience of difference in the sense of 
always being inserted. The modem city is without walls; it is not planned 
and coherent. Dwelling in the city means always having a sense of beyond, 
that there is much human life beyond my experience going on in or near 
these spaces, and I can never grasp the city as a whole. 

City life thus also embodies difference as the contrary of the face-to- 
face ideal expressed by most assertions of community. City life is the 
“being-together” of strangers. Strangers encounter one another, either face 
to face or through media, often remaining strangers and yet acknowledging 
their contiguity in living and the contributions each makes to the others. 
In such encountering people are not “internally” related, as the community 
theorists would have it, and do not understand one another from within 
their own perspective. They are externally related, they experience each 
other as other, different, from different groups, histories, professions, 
cultures, which they do not understand. 

The public spaces of the city are both an image of the total relationships 
of city life and a primary way those relationships are enacted and experi- 



The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference / 319 


enced. A public space is a place accessible to anyone, where people engage 
in activity as individuals or in small groups. In public spaces people are 
aware of each other’s presence and even at times attend to it. In a city there 
are a multitude of such public spaces: streets, restaurants, concert halls, 
parks. In such public spaces the diversity of the city’s residents come to¬ 
gether and dwell side by side, sometimes appreciating one another, enter¬ 
taining one another, or just chatting, always to go off again as strangers. 
City parks as we now experience them often have this character. 

City life implies a social exhaustibility quite different from the ideal of 
the face-to-face community in which there is mutual understanding and 
group identification and loyalty. The city consists in a great diversity of 
people and groups, with a multitude of subcultures and differentiated 
activities and functions, whose lives and movements mingle and overlap 
in public spaces. People belong to distinct groups or cultures and interact 
in neighborhoods and work places. They venture out from these locales, 
however, to public places of entertainment, consumption, and politics. 
They witness one another’s cultures and functions in such public interac¬ 
tion, without adopting them as their own. The appreciation of ethnic foods 
or professional musicians, for example, consists in the recognition that 
these transcend the familiar everyday world of my life. 

In the city strangers live side by side in public places, giving to and 
receiving from one another social and aesthetic products, often mediated 
by a huge chain of interactions. This instantiates social relations as differ¬ 
ence in the sense of an understanding of groups and cultures that are 
different, with exchanging and overlapping interactions that do not issue 
in community, yet which prevent them from being outside of one another. 
The social differentiation of the city also provides a positive inexhaustibil¬ 
ity of human relations. The possibility always exists of becoming ac¬ 
quainted with new and different people, with different cultural and social 
experiences; the possibility always exists for new groups to form or emerge 
around specific interests. 

The